Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell

General Motors has been “playing” with hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles since the 1960s. The company’s vintage Electrovan ran—barely—on one massive fuel cell. Thirty-five years later, GM was still at it when it introduced its unique fuel cell architecture that encased the powertrain and energy storage equipment into a thin horizontal layer—dubbed a “skateboard.” This was supposed to signal a possible new approach to engine layout and placement. But GM was forced back to earth when it came time to putting real high-tech rubber on the road. The company left much of its lofty designs in the lab—and created a 100-strong fleet of Chevy Equinox SUVs that run on hydrogen.

1966 Electrovan

In 1966, GM scientists and engineers demonstrated the world’s first fuel cell vehicle, a converted GMC Handivan called the Electrovan. A science lab on wheels, it took two years and a team of 250 people to make the vehicle drivable and demonstrate the potential feasibility of fuel cell technology.

This relatively large number of vehicles vaulted GM to the lead in fuel cell vehicles on the road, surpassing Daimler with its 60 F-cells and 30 Citaro buses, and Ford with its 30 Focus FCVs, and Honda with its limited leases of the FCX Clarity—fewer than 10 in the first two months of 2009.

Almost all manufacturers have active fuel cell/hydrogen programs, but most have vehicle populations in the teens at the most.

Real-World Evaluation

To evaluate the performance and durability of the Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicle, GM took the middle ground between companies that were leasing FCVs (fuel cell vehicles) to government agencies and a handful of consumers—and those who still don’t want their vehicles too far from the engineers who watch over them. GM put its 100 Equinoxes into Project Driveway, a three-year-long program that began in 2008, to get real-world driving impressions and experiences from short-term loans of the fuel cell vehicles. GM opted to provide the vehicle and fuel for free and set strict parameters because of limited fueling infrastructure—meaning Equinoxes were handed out only in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC. The goal was to get a large quantity and variety of consumer feedback on these advanced vehicles prior to rolling them out for lease or sale.

In 2008, the first year of Project Driveway, 3,400 drivers put more than 500,000 miles on Equinox FCVs. Most were generally impressed with their short stint in the vehicles.

As with many advanced technology programs, Project Driveway has a public relations angle. Journalists were recruited to drive the vehicles and at least one directly participated in the program, blogging about his experiences.

Remarkably Unremarkable

GM chose the Chevroloet Equinox—a car-based SUV or crossover first introduced in 2005 and updated in 2007—as the platform for its first volume run of FCVs. It provides the interior room for four people and enough space to stash the three hydrogen tanks holding the equivalent of 4.2 gallons of gasoline. This provides the vehicle with 160 miles of range—if filled at 10,000 psi. The Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell delivers similar performance to the gasoline version in terms of acceleration, braking and daily driving. The only novelty is that the vehicle runs on hydrogen; and efficiency gets a bump to the equivalent of 43 mpg on hydrogen, about twice that of the gas version.

What is remarkable about the Equinox FCV—as with most modern fuel cell vehicles—is how unremarkable the vehicle is. It starts, stops and runs in a quieter approximation of its internal combustion cousins. All the advanced technology of its fourth generation fuel cell is hidden away from the driver. Even fueling is the same old thing, the only difference from a gasoline vehicle being a slightly more complicated hose connection for a compressed gas hookup compared to the simple task of putting a nozzle in the filler with the old pump. Gaseous fuels take a more deliberate connection between the pump and tank and may take a little longer than the typical gasoline refuel, but otherwise the experience is not very different.

Chicken and Egg

Refueling stations are few and far between, and plans to expand the infrastructure are still sketchy. Automakers are hesitant to ramp up production numbers without a clear market and infrastructure to support it. Fuel providers are adamant they can provide that infrastructure, but won’t do so until there is a volume of vehicles to commercially support it. It’s the classic problem of chicken and egg, which California is proposing to address with government money to spur initial station development in the regions where the first fuel cell vehicles are expected.

By the time the Equinox Project Driveway ends in 2011, GM will have a better view of the market and infrastructure. Then, the company will face tough decisions about next steps with its fuel cell program—especially if the trend toward conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles continues to intensify.

 


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  • Charles

    What is the cost? $100,000? $200,000? Where does the hydrogen come from? How much CO2 is released to get the hydrogen? How bad is hydrogen for the atmosphere (real bad I think)?

    I am not saying we should stop research for fuel cell vehicles, but we are not going to have them in the next 20 years.

  • Civic Hybrid Owner

    The downside of fuel cells is we have to replace our entire fuel delivery infrastructure. Anyone done the math on how expensive that will be?

  • ACAgal

    Quantum Fuel Technologies of Irvine/Lake Forest CA provided much of the engineering for the Equinox and the Chevy Sequel systems. Several years ago, I asked about the slow development of the hydrogen highway at a QTWW meeting and was told the company was continuing to support the Chevy research (reporting what was found during the California Driveway project where some folks in zipcodes classier than mine got to drive these vehicles), Quantum would be looking at options, not as closely tied to GM in the future. I was told that the H highway was taking more time to be developed than expected and that the range of 200 miles/tank was a limit. Thus Quantum was going to shift into hybrids/plug-in development. Years later, and after the Quantum Aggressor (military) has been combat tested for several years, a social meeting between the CEO and Henrik Fisker, lead to the Karma extended range plug-in EV.

    Quantum still has interests in Hydrogen, and one member of its BoD was listed in your story, some months back, about hydrogen from sewage from Orange Co. I have heard that the tank and fuel lines used for gasoline to recharge the generator engine, can be re-engineered, in future models to fit other fuels (bio-fuels/Hydrogen/etc).

    As for fuel conversion of H, the governor of CA has dictated that any fuels of this type used in the State of CA be produced through green energy technology. In California, water is not likely to be a fuel source, as we have been in a nasty drought. I agree with him, and the prior writer, on the necessity that H conversion be green.

    My interest in the company and technology comes from a chance too. I was at a meeting at the South Coast Air Resources Board for a meeting the day the Hydrogen Hummer was presented. The event piqued my curiosity, which has kept me following Hydrogen and Quantum since.

    Disclosure, I own 1000 shares of QTWW, to insure my interest. Since the stock is less than $1/share, I see this as an educational investment, not a financial one.

  • Samie

    I hope that someday we will be able to use fuel cells or water vapors as a internal fuel source or converting molecules from the atm to fuel our vehicles this should be an objective in any long-term energy strategy. Sources to produce hydrogen need to be as important as infrastructure developments, pricing of vehicles or development of cars like the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell or else we will get stuck with Hydrogen in the same way we use petroleum right now (this could be due to extraction of hydrogen that is leftover from oil deposits, that is the current way of most hydro production) Same I guess could be said for developing more alt. energies (grid or independent sources) for powering EV’s. The point is we need to be careful and skeptical of short-term ideas of using Hydrogen but we should not dismiss long-term plans if we come up with viable ways to minimize economic and environment impacts.

  • Indigo

    Actually, I’ve read that most Fuel Cell vehicles cost well over a million dollars each to manufacture. It makes sense, as the fuel cell stack uses several dozen pounds of pure *platinum*. Yeah, platinum.

    Oh, there’s nowhere to fill up.

    The gaseous fuel eventually leaks out of the tank no matter how well it’s sealed. Hydrogen is simply a “leaky” has because it’s the smallest atom in the periodic table.

    It’s just such a joke!

  • veek

    When we evaluate hydrogen, perhaps the experience with propane in Recreational Vehicles (RV’s) may be useful (yes, yes, i know that propane and hydrogen are not the same. No kidding).

    Propane tanks are found in nearly any RV and in many commercial trucks. The tanks are simple, durable, and reliable. Filling them is literally a breeze and high pressures, even with older tanks, has been no problem. Accidents involving propane (even in high speed collisions, extreme stupidity, or even drunken stupidity) are rare. Leaked propane (or hydrogen) evaporates and disseminates quickly. Propane also has quite an odor, and alarms for propane leaks are cheap and easy to make.

    Nevertheless, if you travel through nearly any long tunnel, you will see signs that RV’s or trucks with propane tanks are forbidden. If a leaky propane tank combines with a traffic jam inside the tunnel, a catastrophic accident is thinkable. Hydrogen leaks are quite safe only because hydrogen is so much lighter than air that it rapidly evaporates (the Hindenburg burned not because of the hydrogen, but because of the flammable coatings in the aircraft’s skin). However, if you have a hydrogen leak in an enclosed area (like a tunnel or a parking garage), then … kaboom.

    Bottom line: hydrogen should be extremely safe unless it happens to leak in an enclosed area. Hydrogen fuel would probably be safer than gasoline, but you may want to park in a vented area.

  • mike deebo

    The hydrogen comes from pure water (H2O). NO carbon dioxide is released to the air. The atmosphere is mostly made out of hydrogen. And fuel cells, unlike electric, biodiesel, E85 and other alternatives, is actualy GOOD for the environment. I say the others aren’t good for the environment because they aren’t. They’re just a heck of a lot better than burning gasoline. Hydrogen Fuel Cell is the healthiest and most renewable technology/resource. Lastly, it does not cost many tens of thousands of dollars to make a vehicle run on fuel cells. You can convert any normal gasoline-running car for just a few thousand dollars and its actualy better on your engine and you get more horsepower.

  • mike deebo

    as far as hydrogen containment and transportation, why dont they put electrolyzers (h2o into h) inside the vehicle. then you can just fill it up with water. Let the electrolyzer do all the work

  • stas zh

    I’m agree with Mike deebo. Those who have doubts about cost of the technology should first google it, before saying it costs millions and pollutes air.
    I’ll tell you what: I was at an auto show in amsterdam and talked to BMW representative. The point is that oil companies who own all your gas stations don’t want to add hydrogen to gas stations. They want to sell you oil as long as they can pump it. It’s all about money and they don’t demn care about your(mine) enviroment. As soon as they stop selling oil people(masses) will understand that we don’t need oil at all. Now tell it to Arab Emirates or to Shell and BP.

  • stas zh

    that will be a fraction of current stimulus package which disappeared in banking system

  • Anonymous

    lol very funy

  • Marionette

    Deebo has got it right! I agree.
    The American consumers are beginning to see who pulls the strings in the controlled markets of the united states.
    GM makes Razors, for Exxon/Chevron’s lucrative razor-blades.
    Choice is not an option for consumers or Auto-makers.
    If it don’t run on Petrol.. It Can Not be Sold in the USA, period.
    Expensive lease programs and pilot programs only. NO FREE MARKET in the USA

    If consumers want choice they need to create laws mandating zero emission vehicles, or department of justice anti-trust action on the petrol monopoly

  • Joe

    Hydrogen is better in than paying for oil. Hugo Chavez + the Saudi’s would love to see the U.S. suffer (NOT the U.S. Government) if they raised the gas prices again we would go through another retooling America to gain independence again from paying to much tax to the King of Saudi like we once did to the King of England. It all started with a little Tea Party, but I think we know better than to pour oil in the Harbor.

    Not a Tea Party member
    Signed Independent

  • Melisa

    it may be expensive at first, but not long-term.

  • Hitman

    The upfront cost of replacing our infrastructure will be so much cheaper than the next 25 years of foreign oil dependence; that it makes the argument moot.

  • Craig

    We will still need oil even if Fuel cell technology takes off. Still have to power lawn mowers and other yard equipment. Would be nice to eliminate diesel engines with Hydrogen though, plus it takes less time to fill up your tank with water than to charge up 200 pounds of Lithium Ion batteries.

  • Zack

    hydrogen is not bad for the environment at all. Also the cost would go down if the subsidies on oil where moved to hydrogen.

  • exo

    I’ve heard that too Zack, but I think the subsidies would have to move to solar, wind, and geothermal energy as well as hydrogen. That might spread the subsidies a bit thin, but at least they would be competitive with oil.

  • Anonymous

    Ok I know it was a really old comment but hydrogen can be obtained by splitting water in hydrogen and oxygen. Is that how it is actually obtained I don’t know.

    The fuel cell causes the hydrogen to react with oxygen and the only byproducts are water and the electricity used.

    also even if hydrogen were to get into the atmosphere it is so light that it escapes the Earths gravity. How quickly I don’t know.

  • Anonymous

    Charles, what is wrong with you?
    You should do some research and not ask such dumb questions.

  • tapra1

    GM opted to provide the vehicle and fuel for free and set strict parameters because of limited fueling infrastructure—meaning Equinoxes were handed out only in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC.Surface News

  • Scientist by teaching, enviro by trade

    Dude, RESEARCH. Go to google, type in “combustion of hydrogen chemical equation.” If you do, you will notice that the equation looks like this 2H₂ + O₂ = 2H₂O. For you folks out there that missed too many classes of high school chemistry… That is 2 molecules of Hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen. Add heat (think of the equals sign as heat) and you get two molecules of H₂O (this is water). Notice that you have no carbon in this equation. This means that it is impossible to form Carbon Dioxide (CO₂) simply from the ignition of hydrogen gas.

  • Scientist by teaching, enviro by trade

    I think the idea is to not disperse the new technology across the country all. Also, these vehicles would need to be phased in over time. Imagine a city like San Francisco or new york. Install say 20 stations for gas powered vehicles. Families that have two cars might then consider purchasing a gas powered vehicle as their “alternate.” Long road trips? Use the gas powered car. Trips to take the kids to soccer practice or to go to the store? Take the gas powered vehicle and save money every time you drive it over the gas guzzler.

    THINK

    <3

  • Raymondjram

    Charles,

    You expel CO2 every second of your life, yet you are worried about it? Hold your breath and you won’t have that worry again!

    Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, so it exists everywhere!. And, yes, we will have fuel cells in the next 20 years. It was used in all the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle spacecraft since 1964, and the ISS has it, too, for the next 50 years (until it falls from space). So your “prediction” is wrong.

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  • altonalvin

    The Equinox Fuel Cell includes safety features such as ABS, traction control system, and GM’s OnStar telematics service, which offers drivers advice on operating the cars as well as information on nearby hydrogen filling stations. The car meets all 2007 federal safety standards. développement personnel

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  • BMartin9000

    Stas zh brings up a good point. The true cost of technology is hidden by those that have something to gain from the status quo. I think that the Chevrolet Equinox along with other vehicles using fuel cell technology stand the chance at becoming economical if more powerful sources would get involved to regulate the playing field.

  • shaziya khan

    nice car…which cost..

  • André BUREAU

    Louer bureau It’s good to see that GM finally took the steps necessary for its own survival. The market changed, and they have the experience and know-how to strive in that new environment.

    André BUREAU
    Lyon, France

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