It's about 11 p.m., and I'm parked along a dark freeway off-ramp about 100 feet ahead of an idling semi. The driver's probably sound asleep in there, but me, I couldn't be more awake. I'm sitting here because it just hit me that I really, truly, might not have enough of this compressed hydrogen to make it to the 24-hour U.C. Irvine refueling station I'm heading for. Sure, I know this is exactly why GM's Project Driveway sent these 100 fuel-cell Equinoxes into the real world-to get gritty feedback like this. But guess what? I've suddenly realized there's a difference between "real-world experience" printed on a press release and sitting here in the dark, ahead of an idling semi wondering what the hell to do next. The difference is called anxiety.
Two minutes earlier, I was optimistically nursing the Equinox along at an energy-sipping 64 mph-until I realized that my MapQuest route included a long steep climb on a hilly toll road. Quick math: It's 56 miles to the station. My range, it says here on the dash, is 63. But since leaving our San Bernardino photo location (where all these carefree pictures of the Equinox and flying water were shot), the car's range has been dropping a lot faster than the odometer's been climbing. And now there's this hill to factor in. If I run dry of H-juice out here, the AAA ain't coming to my rescue. So I've pulled off the freeway to ponder Plan B. But what the hell is Plan B?
My map of hydrogen stations shows one 5000psi 24-hour option within 50 miles, a city-run multifuel rig in Riverside. Never been there. I enter its address into the Equinox's nav system. 34 miles. At about 30 degrees off-course from where I'm headed. Okay, so now I've got to drive 20-odd miles out of my way to get to a station with only enough H2 pressure for a half tank of fuel (it prefers 10,000 psi)? To gain maybe 90 more miles? The good news is that the boxy Equinox is managing 43 miles per kilogram of hydrogen, pretty much equal to 43 miles per gasoline gallon. Astounding when you consider that it's 46 percent heavier than the slippery Prius that does about the same numbers.
All the same, what kind of mileage are you actually getting if you have to drive 20 or 30 percent farther to actually make it home? Where the heck is Governor Schwarzenegger's ballyhooed hydrogen highway anyway? Hasta la vista, hydrogen, apparently. Five and a half years after President Bush declared in his State of the Union speech: "Tonight I am proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles," it's Honda's FCX Clarity that's leading this game. And all I've seen along this freeway are twinkling Arco signs, smiling Chevron logos, and glistening Exxon invitations. Gas, gas, and more gas. For me and Mr. Hydrogen car here, they might as well be a bunch of multicolored middle fingers. How many newspaper headlines have announced yet another big-dollar round of funding for hydrogen infrastructure programs? Pictures of beaming politicians, ribbons being cut? Where's the money gone, folks?