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The Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 Fuel Cell Previews the Future of Military Mobility

Fuel cells could replace diesels in the theater of war

When you think about military vehicles, tanks, MRAPs, and Humvees come to mind. Not the Chevrolet Colorado. And you definitely don't think about hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Nonetheless, a special kind of Colorado, the ZH2 prototype off-roader courtesy of the Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), will soon be in the hands of the Army and Marines. It was on display at the 2017 Detroit auto show and starting in May, active duty service members will start testing the Colorado ZH2 in training missions to evaluate the viability and use-case of fuel-cell technology on the battlefield.

Riding on a stretched Colorado ZR2 chassis with a slightly modified body, the ZH2 uses the "Gen 0" 93-kW fuel-cell powertrain previously seen in the 2007 Chevrolet Equinox. It will go 142 miles before running dry, but the prototype is more built for specific-use missions over especially rough terrain, made possible by its 37-inch BF Goodrich tires, lifted suspension, and improved approach and departure angles. The truck has a turning radius of under 25 feet, and the two-speed transfer case is perfect for rock-crawling, while the Multimatic dampers (also used on the Camaro Z/28) minimize harsh impacts and maintain stability.

Since the Gen 0 powertrain, GM has gone through two more progressively more efficient and advanced versions. Gen 2 is more than 280 pounds lighter than Gen 0, it's more compact, and it will run for 150,000 miles instead of 30,000. The main reason the ZH2 prototype uses the Gen 0 system is that the powertrain has the pedigree of millions of miles of testing under its belt, and reliability is the name of the game when lives are on the line.

The ZH2 is the latest in the collaboration between TARDEC and General Motors, which goes back quite a ways. Brian Butrico, owner of the BMW M Coupe we featured in recent Collectible Classic, is Chief Engineer and Program Manager on the ZH2 project, and eagerly tells us about some unexpected ways fuel-cell powertrains could benefit the U.S. armed services. "For starters, the on-board fuel cells would be perfect energy sources for anything from on-site hospitals to remote weaponry, comms, really whatever they need," he says. "But the advantages don't stop there."

Compared to a diesel engine, the Colorado ZH2 runs at near-silent volumes, making it desirable for covert operations. The heat signature is more than 10 times lower than that of an internal combustion engine as well, making the ZH2 easier to hide from thermal scanners. The immediate wheel torque is ideal for low-speed rock crawling as well, while the 60 percent reduction in parts than a comparable internal combustion engine means fewer things can fail. Perhaps most interesting is that the fuel cell system produces 1-3 gallons of water per hour as a by-product, which can be a life-saving asset in remote locations or when cut off from resources.

I was keen to find out the challenges of acquiring hydrogen fuel for such a vehicle out in the theater of war, and the answer is a portable hydrogen reformer. Right now there are existing technologies that can convert gasoline or propane or most other fuel sources into usable hydrogen, but the Army is working to develop a multi-fuel hydrogen reformer that could take the place of several machines. It's also possible to use nuclear power or grid energy to produce hydrogen, according to Butrico.

Sitting inside the Colorado ZH2 feels for the most part like any other Colorado, save for the stripped-out rear seating area and four Recaro seats. There isn't much in the way of storage, but according to TARDEC director Dr. Paul Rogers, whatever future vehicle this powertrain would be potentially used in would be custom-designed for optimized interior volume and ergonomics. Compared to what we see on this prototype, any serious military vehicle would need loads of additional armor and underbody protection. "What's great about a fuel-cell powertrain is that there's no need for a traditional grille," says Rogers. "That removes one of the most vulnerable areas on a vehicle, meaning we don't have to worry about damaged radiators."

The Colorado ZH2 prototype was assembled at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. The partnership between General Motors and TARDEC has the potential to rapidly improve the speed at which TARDEC can engineer and develop prototypes.

After the engineering phase is finalized in April, infantry, special forces, airborne, and more will have the chance to give their feedback to TARDEC and GM. The first on-site training missions will be based out of Fort Bragg, followed by Fort Benning, Fort Carson, and then Marine Base Quantico.