First Drive: Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell

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Even though hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may be a long way from appearing in a showroom near you, they are already starting to populate America's roads thanks to test programs from manufacturers like Honda and Chevrolet. Chevrolet's effort, called Project Driveway, aims to place about 100 Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell SUVs in the hands of ordinary drivers for extended loans. I recently had the chance to take a short drive around La Jolla, Calif., in the Equinox fuel cell, and I came away impressed.

The Equinox fuel cell offers strong, smooth acceleration, easy handling and natural brake pedal feel. After driving it for a while, it starts to feel like a hybrid that's been forced to stay in electric mode all the time, only it's more powerful. The Equinox fuel cell's electric motor drives the front wheels (there is no transmission) and it has 236 pounds-feet of torque ready whenever you touch the gas pedal.

Chevrolet has also engineered in little things that will help any driver of a conventional gas-powered car feel comfortable in the Equinox fuel cell. Lift your foot off the brake pedal and it will creep forward like a regular car with an automatic transmission. In fact, the Equinox fuel cell doesn't really ask the driver to change anything about the way they drive in order to operate it. That's sure to be a plus for the people who have been selected to test it as part of Project Driveway.

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The Equinox fuel cell's cabin has the general layout of a conventional Equinox with some styling and functional changes. One of the most intriguing elements is the power-flow diagram for the fuel cell system that can be viewed on the SUV's navigation screen. It's reminiscent of the type seen in some hybrids, and it provides a graphical representation of how the parts of the fuel-cell powertrain are operating at a given moment. It depicts the fuel-cell stack, electric motor and also the system's battery pack, among other things. The battery can provide additional power when necessary and also store energy captured during regenerative braking, according to GM vehicle engineer Todd Goldstein. Changes to the instrument cluster include the replacement of the tachometer with a kW gauge and a hydrogen gauge instead of one for gasoline.

Move to the cargo area, and you can see the outline in the floor of one of the three carbon fiber hydrogen tanks.  When all of them are filled, the Equinox can hold 4.2 kilograms of hydrogen. If you're wondering how that amount of hydrogen compares to gasoline, Goldstein says that burning one gallon of gas delivers about the same amount of energy as using one kilogram of hydrogen in a fuel cell. Multiply the storage capacity of the Equinox fuel cell by its 39 miles per kilogram combined fuel economy rating, and you get a range of about 160 miles.

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While there are a number of challenges, like cost and developing a refueling infrastructure, that stand in the way of fuel-cell vehicles being commercially viable, delivering an acceptable driving experience isn't one of them, as the Equinox fuel cell wins high marks for its overall refinement and ease of use.

Comments 

Ken

I don't know if this is too far beyond the topic of cars, but as good as it sounds to have hydrogen fuel cell cars on our roads, I think the biggest challenge is finding a source of hydrogen. Although it is the most abundant element, it is almost always paired with other elements and found naturally in water or other compounds. As I understand it, it will always take energy to separate hyodrogen, which largely offsets the energy we gain when using it in a fuel cell.

Anyways, basically I am just looking for a good source of info related to actually obtaining hydrogen. I think once that is figured out, the high cost and infrastructure needs will be handled in time.

Daz

Is it just me or does this "Chevy" have "Pontiac Torrent" headlights??

Dan

Hydrogen source- see Jupiter or the Sun

Otherwise, see "even a high school understanding of chemistry or physics will tell you that hydrogen as an energy source is impossible"

Hydrogen could only be used as a method of storing energy. That is basically it's a chemical battery. So unless we develop zero emission power plants down the road, it will accomplish little to help with pollution. (The reason I say litte instead of nothing is that we already draw some power from nuclear and hydroelectric, so it will help reduce emissions some. Also, coal power plants are more efficient than individual car engines.)

Ken,

Hydrogen can be made by electrolysis with clean sources of electricity such as solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, etc. There is more than enough clean electricity to power the world.

It takes about 50 kilowatt hours of electricity to make a kilogram of hydrogen. This translates to around $4-6 per kilogram of hydrogen at the pump (see anlysis in the link below). Since fuel cells are twice as efficient as internal combustion engines, this is equal on a cost per mile basis to gasoline at $2-3 per gallon.

For an analysis of hydrogen myths, check out:

http://hydrogendiscoveries.wordpress.com/2007/09/24/the-hype-against-hydrogen-setting-the-record-straight-on-six-hydrogen-myths-perpetuated-by-joseph-romm/

Greg Blencoe, CEO
Hydrogen Discoveries

Greg raises the main question not yet addressed, and that is what we're trying to accomplish with this or any alternative to petroleum-buring engines. Dan is correct. Hydrogen is a means of storing and transferring electricity. It's not a fuel. I find it fascinating, but the more I learn about the field, the more I doubt hydrogen's future. If you're looking to clean up the air (which is to say decrease the conventional pollutants), E85 isn't much help, and hydrogen would shift the emissions or other environmental issues from the car to the original energy source, just as electric cars always have.

(We should all agree that renewable energy would be the best thing we could do in this area and virtually all others, but that's a contingency outside the automotive industry that is getting even less attention and resources. We'll have to solve that problem separately.)

What hydrogen could do is help get us off imported petroleum. Our electricity comes overwhelmingly from coal, natural gas and nuclear, all of which are North American resources, and all of which have ecological downsides. The fossil fuels produce CO2. The question we must ask is how much. Natural gas burns relatively cleanly, and it's also a great source of hydrogen with comparatively low carbon release (CH4). When burned, it's not nearly as cost effective as coal.

That brings us to Greg's point, which is that some of this energy will be less expensive, typically on the user's end. Is that our goal? Or is it pollutants ... or greenhouse gas ... or foreign sources of energy.... You see what I'm saying?

Joe Wiesenfelder
Cars.com Senior Editor

JM

im not crazy about having no transmission, but if that much tourque is available right away, then 0 gears is ok. they should try to find a way to lengthen the range of the vehicle, either by making the vehicle itself more efficient of by doubling the capacity of the fuel tanks. 4.2 kilos of hydrogen doesnt seem like alot, but going 160 miles is pretty good especially if city driving is where it is going to be used the most.

it also looks significantly better than the current Equinox.

overall, it seems like a very large leap forward in the hydrogen auto industry. good job GM

Paul

Wow, having Greg from Hydrogen Discoveries chime in really gives this article and website horsepower. No wonder I find myself checking out Cars.com everyday! Keep up the great work, and for the record I dropped two transmissions into my Explorer (no longer have it) so I welcome a transmission-less vehicle.

Dallas

Others commenting here are right on the money. Hydrogen is a type of battery, and fuel cells are one way to get the power out of the hydrogen. It's nice because it's very quiet, but I'm not sure about the long-term reliability. Another very good battery technology is Li-ion, especially with the innovations being made my companies like Altair Nano. Their batteries can be fully recharged in minutes, they have almost completely eliminated the hazard of run-away batteries (remember the laptop fires?), and the batteries can be recharged more than 10,000 times (30 years!!?).

Excellent battery technologies need to be developed in tandem with green sources of electricity, includng solar, wind, wave, and others. I'm personally very skeptical about nuclear energy, primarily because of the toxic nature (and long half-life) of the waste material. One corn field, covered over with solar panels, can run far more automobiles than it can by producing corn which gets made into ethanol. An acre of corn can power one very efficient automobile for one year (or 10,000 miles). An acre of solar panels can charge the batteries for at least 1,000 electric cars.

Infosaur

One reason I'm so bullish on Hydrogen Tech is that it really is in it's infancy. Imagine having to go from a modern car to 1918 Ford.

One thing I've heard rumors of is micro-sized fuel cells. These would lead to a revolution in powering personal electronics. Imagine recharging a cell phone by droping in a hydrogen fuel cell.

Fc

The Chevrolet seems impressive, Chevrolet took a big step in being enviromentally friendly I think that Chevrolet will do excellent in fuel cells I will tell you what I think the top 5 Fuel cell Brand Might be:

1. Honda
2. Toyota
3. Nissan
4. Volkswagen
5. Chevrolet

Dan the Man

What the heck! Why are you being so biased because it's a domestic brand? The brands you listed aren't publically testing these vehicles!

Fc

The Volkswagen's testing the Passat or Jetta on Fuel Cells. Toyota is already driving a Highlander Fuell Cell. Honda's ready to sell the Fuel Cell FCX FC, in the FCX stands for Fuel Cell.

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