environmentally minded people, I thought I knew something
about high-mileage, alternative-fuel vehicles. For
instance, I'm aware that the Prius gets 55 miles per
gallon (at least four times more than the
Hummer). I realize the Honda Accord Hybrid emits half as
many tons of greenhouse gas per year as a VW Touareg. It
goes without saying that driving one of these babies
makes me look evolved, and it means I can go solo in
the carpool lane in 10 states, including California.
But when I sat
down for a cup of coffee with Dave Barthmuss, manager of
environment and energy communications at General Motors, I
learned that alternative fuel is more complicated than
just closing the lid on the OPEC cookie jar. There's
affordability, safety, and practicality to consider.
Can your mechanic fix a $92,000 battery-powered Tesla
Roadster? Do you want him to?
School children gaze at an engine of GM's fuel cell
vehicle HydroGen3 at a Tokyo elementary school.
While the search
for a magic carpet ride continues, GM has drawn up a
multipronged approach to alternative fuel, said Barthmuss at
a recent "LGBT drive" in Laguna Beach, Calif. It looks
something like this:
(1) Use hybrid technology in more GM
models like the Saturn VUE and the Chevy Tahoe.
(Barthmuss swears there's a demand for eco-friendly
(2) Make more GM models
"flex-fuel"--i.e., able to run on
either regular gas or 85% ethanol, known as E85. For the
record, Hummer says it will make all of its models
capable of running on alternative fuel by 2009.
(3) Apply advanced science to
engines (for instance, eight cylinders that run on
four until the driver needs more power) so that they
achieve higher mileage.
(4) Avoid ceding the title of number
1 automaker to Toyota.
didn't actually say that last one. But it's likely a large
part of what this is all about. In 2004, GM vice chairman
Bob Lutz called hybrids "an interesting
curiosity." That was one year before Toyota's
sales rose 10% and GM's fell 4.3%.
HydroGen3, an 18-vehicle fleet of hydrogen-fueled cars that
GM is testing in a limited capacity. Prototypes of the
HydroGen3 are used to deliver the mail in Orange,
Calif., and Washington, D.C.; others are battling the
elements throughout Europe and Asia. The glitches and quirks
they uncover will benefit future generations of Chevys.
Beginning this year GM's Project Driveway will gather
information about consumer needs and vehicle
performance from a team of GM daily-duty drivers.
It's all part of
a fact-finding mission aimed at getting fuel cell cars
on the road by 2010. In the meantime, the learning curve is
not without accolades earned: The HydroGen3 is the
first fuel cell vehicle to be certified by the
Japanese government for operation on regular roads.
may have dragged its feet on the way to alternative fuel,
but I can forgive that. For years GM has reached out to the
LGBT community like no other carmaker. It organized
LGBT-specific test drives; it also created GM PLUS, a
LGBT affinity group that answers questions and
concerns from GM's gay and lesbian employees. At this year's
North American International Auto Show in Detroit, its
GM Diversity program hosted LGBT guests.
It was that kind
of outreach that brought me to the LGBT drive and put me
behind the wheel of a $1 million automobile. Tim
Perzanowski, a vehicle system engineer in Torrance,
Calif., explained how the engine worked. In a
nutshell, a fuel cell engine uses hydrogen that's stored
onboard the car, mixed with oxygen from the ambient
air. Currently there is no stored power; the engine
uses what it produces. It generates electricity, water,
and heat, and not a single emission. Perzanowski says the
next generation will include a battery pack to
make stored power available instantly.
This will be a
nice modification because, as is, the HydroGen3 needs time
to get going. That's not to say it isn't an enjoyable
driving experience. There's a lot to be said for being
in command of a million-dollar ride. The HydroGen3
isn't sexy (it looks remarkably similar to a minivan), but
it feels practical and smart. It can go 168 miles (249 in a
liquid-hydrogen format) before needing a pit stop at a
compressed-hydrogen fuel station. The inside is outfitted in
black with decorative blue panels in the seats. An LCD
display indicates the hydrogen system's activity.
There's no stick shift (or traditional transmission);
the hydrogen fuel cell sends the electricity directly to
the drive motors to propel the car. Pressing one button
moves the car forward, another puts it in reverse, and
another functions as the parking brake. It's a little
like driving an automatic cappuccino machine.
important to hydrogen fuel cell cars, as the hydrogen tank
is under 10,000 psi of pressure. What would happen if
we were in a collision? Perzanowski says that a
special tank had to be engineered to sustain normal
pressure and fit inside the vehicle--it's been tested
rigorously to withstand temperature extremes and impact.
Another safety feature automatically sets the brakes
when the vehicle stops, which keeps the car from
rolling on a incline. This takes a little getting used to.
Pressing the accelerator when the traffic light turns green
doesn't immediately release the brake, and when it
does release, you're instantly moving forward.
In the end, it's
not just a question of fuel. How affordable and
available alternative-fuel cars become depends on purchasing
habits, marketability, and consumer demand. But GM is
banking on a greener future.
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