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.