General Motors hasn't let its bankruptcy get in the way of its hydrogen fuel cell efforts, and made it clear during a recent event that it still considers hydrogen power one of several key propulsion technologies that it will continue to develop in the future.
"We are not abandoning our fuel cell technologies," proclaimed Charles Freese, executive director of GM's Global Fuel Cell Activities, during a presentation at the automaker's Burbank, California, fuel cell hub facility, "If we didn't intend to maintain it, we would have left it with the old GM."
If you've been following GM's fuel cell efforts at all, then you've no doubt heard of Project Driveway, a real-world test that began in late 2007 where the automaker outfitted a fleet of 119 Chevrolet Equinox vehicles with a hydrogen fuel cell stack providing the juice for its electric propulsion. Drivers have logged more than 1.3 million miles in all around the world during the test, and even got in a few accidents (no, nothing blew up).
While the project itself is winding down, Freese and Co. say the vehicles will still be used to test new electric motor and fuel cell components as well as to aid in further developing a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
The centerpiece of GM's future hydrogen-powered efforts revolves around its Gen 2 hydrogen fuel cell stack, which is being designed to fit in a four-cylinder engine bay. It's reportedly some 220 pounds lighter than the stack powering the Equinox fleet, and uses about a third of the platinum (a metal critical to the overall process) than the present stack. Gen2 will employ fewer and lighter components and with its smaller overall size, GM hopes it will be able to spread the stack around to more vehicles in the future. In addition to the Gen 2 stack, GM is also continuing to develop its hydrogen storage solutions. The present fuel cell Equinoxes employ three hydrogen storage tanks. The automaker is moving to switch that out with a smaller, two-tank setup.
How long will this all take to bring to market? When it comes to hydrogen-powered vehicles especially, that's always the million-dollar question. GM says it is focusing on producing a "production intent" program by 2015 -- with "intent" being the proverbial hedging its bet word. But GM firmly believes that while by no means a silver bullet solution, hydrogen-powered vehicles will have a place in the Pantheon of future powertrains, and promised at the event that we'll see something "sooner than you think."
Of course, there are numerous other challenges to face on the way to the hydrogen highway, and Freese made the point that "consistent policy is important for creating infrastructure," a nod to the government's schizophrenic approach thus far to hydrogen-powered vehicles. There are lessons to be learned from Germany and Japan, Freese said, both of whom have made significant strides in creating a workable, scalable plan for creating nationwide hydrogen fueling station networks and as well as further developing solutions for extracting hydrogen using renewable energy (i.e. wind power, etc.).
GM believes a phased-in approach focusing on urban population centers and branching out from there is the most likely way to attack initial infrastructure issues. Southern California is one of the few areas in the country where multiple hydrogen stations are available, and GM is centering initial efforts in the region. Honda, with its FCX Clarity, and several other automakers also have hydrogen-powered research and development efforts in the region. The automaker believes that with a $100-200 million investment and 30-40 stations, most of SoCal could be covered.
In the meantime, GM has also slapped a fancy new graphics package (look, it's floating on water!) onto its former Project Driveway vehicles and has begun handing them back out to various organizations and individuals. At the event they trotted-out Stephanie White, one of Project Driveway's first participants with some 4,000 miles behind the wheel of the hydrogen-powered Equinox. White especially likes the environmentally friendly aspects of the powertrain and said the vehicle proved more than capable for her journeys around L.A.
So while the Volt is GM's near-term alternative powertrain gotcha vehicle, the automaker wants the world (and no doubt the federal government) to know that it remains committed to developing longer-term solutions like hydrogen fuel cells, despite the significant hurdles. Because as the Gen 1 vs Gen 2 fuel cell stack diagrams demonstrate, those hurdles will no doubt get easier to jump in the not-so-distant future.