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?
I follow the nav system's guidance to Riverside. It's dark and kinda spooky as I approach the city refueling center. A lot of edgy squad cars are patrolling the area. Maybe it's because of this station, but maybe not. I pull into the desolate facility and find the lone H2 pump amid a loopy, Alice-in-Wonderland forest of alternative-fuel dispensers. Following the instructions, I type in the code-er, hey, the keypad doesn't seem to work right. Some numbers you have to bang with your thumb, others fill the screen with the slightest graze. Out of the dark, a night guard hesitantly approaches in a golf cart. "Can I help you?"
"This touchpad doesn't seem to work right, but I think I can get it." I say to myself as much as him, though I suspect "getting it" is 50/50 at best. "You know, you're the first regular public-type person I've ever seen here," he says, watching my fingers tire. Not reassuring, this guy. Eventually, I get the code in, but when I attach the electronic communication cable to the Equinox's stern, a communication error appears on the dispenser screen. I try it again. Error. And again. Error. It's midnight. I wonder if there's a decent motel around here.
What the hell, I plug the H2 hose in anyway and, hssssss, hydrogen starts entering the Equinox's spent lungs. Whew, and I'm not asking any questions why. Coolly I turn to the guard silently appraising me: "Got it now. Thanks." He whines off into the dark.
The place is a ghost town for a few minutes, and then an old, gold-colored Civic with a bunch of knick-knacks on the dash pulls up to the compressed-natural-gas pump about 30 feet away. Techno music is thumping inside. A gigantic body-builder type gets out and begins refueling. Gold paint hides dirt pretty well, but even at 30 feet this car needed a wash about six months ago, and then I notice he's staring back at me. I quickly look back at my pump, hssssss, its display is still showing about 1.5 kilograms. Why isn't this thing faster? Didn't Hitchcock film a scene something like this? Cary Grant and James Mason exchanging uneasy glances in a vacant landscape. Hssssss, 1.6 kilograms.
The bodybuilder finishes first and slowly drives over. "Is that really a hydrogen car?" "Yep," I say. "Who makes it?" "GM. It's a modified Equinox." "Let me write this down," he says picking a loose piece of paper from an assortment on the floor. "E. Q. U." He tells me how much he loves his car and will never ever sell it...except for maybe this hydrogen car here. Turns out, he's a nice guy, but he talks really fast and I feel better when he finally drives away with a furious wave. Another 50 miles later, I finally pull into my driveway. It's 1:30 a.m. now. I lean my head against the steering wheel. Welcome to the world of hydrogen transportation, circa 2008.
President Bush's speech continued: "With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom-so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free."
Smart they put that "could" in there. In 10 and a half years, that kid'll have a driver's license-not much time to build a gazillion hydrogen versions of all those Arcos and Exxon stations I was passing. Until you've stared at a map of Southern California's sparse grid of hydrogen oases and gone to them, found some non-operable, some demanding individual training sessions before using them, discover at the U.C. Irvine station (best of the bunch) that you're required to wear a fire-resistant lab coat and goggles despite 90-degree weather, learn that some stations take about seven minutes for a refill (UCI) and others 25 minutes (depending on station sophistication), only then will you start to appreciate how unbelievably far hydrogen has to go to be even remotely practical. Right now, in every house along my modest, couldn't-be-more-ordinary street, there are circuit-breaker boxes humming away with 240 volts of electricity. If Chevy's plug-in Volt works half as well as GM's ballyhooing in 2011 or whenever, these hydrogen cars are going to go poof faster than you can say "Hindenburg."
And it sure as heck won't be the Equinox's fault. As stunningly underdeveloped and uncoordinated as the hydrogen infrastructure is, GM gets a loud shoutout from us for building a hydrogen-fuel-cell car that runs like a Rolex. We drove it for two weeks and the whole time were simply amazed at how well it operated. After five miles or so, its odd-ball George Jetson drivetrain simply melts away into irrelevance-who cares what it is? It works. From a stop, the car simply hair-triggers away as its electric motor's 236 pound-feet of torque deliciously yanks you forward from zero rpm. To be sure, at freeway speed you finally pay the electric-motor piper, as its 98 horses dissolve the Equinox into econocar feebleness. But even here, the near-instant response of what little power you've got results in a useable gain until the stampede of internal-combustion buffalos manage to swallow a breath and start retaliating. Our only gripe was with the brakes, which in the last few mph tended to go all regen weird-feeling.
Compared with a gas Equinox we tested a while back (a 3.4-liter V-6 with 185 horses and 210 pound-feet of twist), the FCV is 0.3 second slower to 60 (four percent), stops two feet shorter from 60 (one percent), and corners with 0.05g less lateral tug (seven percent). Basically, the fuel-cell car is the gas version on a bad day, respectable given it's being saddled with a trio of 10,000psi H2 tanks in the back (holding the equivalent of 4.2 gallons of gasoline for a 160-mile range) and enough radiators to cool Three Mile Island (needed to rid its lower-temp heat). It's a technical tour de force that should rightly make GM proud. One evening, I happened to park the Equinox next to a sweet mid-1960s Corvette surrounded by a group of Vette-smitten car guys reliving their Beach Boys youth. GM brawn, circa 1967, meets GM brain, circa 2008. Gradually, they took notice of the Equinox and eventually stared, bewildered, as it did its post-drive, water-vapor blown-down routine (whereby the fuel cell avoids freeze damage to temperatures as low as -15 F). Dumbstruck, they were.
So what's the situation? For decades, the story on hydrogen-fuel-cell cars has typically leveraged the old chicken-and-egg allusion. Something has to happen first-the fuel-cell car? Or will it be the hydrogen infrastructure? Up until now, the answer has been predictably, maybe conveniently, neither.
But now with the Equinox FCV, we don't just have a chicken, we have ourselves a prancing, chest-puffing, cock-a-doodle-dooing rooster. GM has taken the long list of fuel-cell never-will-happens and ripped up the piece of paper. It drives great; the range is tolerable; refueling time is acceptable (at competent stations); the thing didn't blow up. It's kinda fun. Joe Romm (author of the influential book "The Hype About Hydrogen") may need to rewrite a few of his tome's more doom-and-gloom chapters. However, from our experience, nearly everybody involved in the egg part of this undertaking-that is, the establishment of the hydrogen infrastructure-appears to have has so far laid a colossal double-yolker.
We hear it all the time: So if both diesel engines and hybrid gasoline engines offer efficiency improvements, why not combine them? Recently, we had the opportunity to drive and test just such a combination built by students from Mississippi State University, winner of the now completed Challenge X competition. Their car is basically a push-me/pull-you affair: Driving the front wheels is a GM-Europe-derived 1.9-liter, 148-horse turbodiesel coupled to a six-speed manual transmission, while the rears are rotated by a 60-horse electric motor. Sounds odd, but the integration works well. Is it a better alternative than Chevy's fuel-cell approach? MSU's car can manage a combined 35 miles per diesel gallon compared with the FCV's 38 gas-equivalent mileage (and potentially zero CO2 footprint). On the other hand, diesel is amply available right now-something you can't exactly say for hydrogen. For more, go to motortrend.com.
| 2008 Chevrolet Equinox FCV |
| POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS |
| Drivetrain layout || Front motor, FWD |
| Motor || AC Synchronous |
| Valvetrain || DOHC, 4 valves/cyl |
| Power (SAE NET) || 98 hp |
| Torque (SAE NET) || 236 lb-ft @ 0 rpm |
| Battery type || Ni metal hydride |
| Weight to power || 44.6 lb/hp |
| Transmission || 1-speed |
| Battery power || 3.39:1/2.47:1 |
| Suspension, front; rear || Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil spring |
| Steering ratio || 19.4:1 |
| Turns lock-to-lock || 3.4 |
| Brakes, f;r || 11.7-in vented disc & regen; 11.9-in vented disc, ABS |
| Wheels || 7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum |
| Tires || P225/60R-17 98S, Goodyear Integrity M+S |
| DIMENSIONS |
| Wheelbase || 112.5 in |
| Track, f/r || 61.6/61.8 in |
| Length x width x height || 188.8 x 71.4 x 69.3 in |
| Ground clearance || 7.3 in |
| Turning circle || 41.8 ft |
| Curb weight || 4370 lb |
| Weight dist., f/r || 57/43% |
| Seating capacity || 4 |
| Headroom, f/r || 40.9/40.1 in |
| Shoulder room, f/r || 55.7/55.9 in |
| Cargo volume || 32.0 cu ft |
| TEST DATA |
| Acceleration to mph |
| 0-30 || 3.0 sec |
| 0-40 || 4.6 |
| 0-50 || 6.7 |
| 0-60 || 9.2 |
| 0-70 || 12.5 |
| 0-80 || 17.6 |
| Passing, 45-65 mph || 5.1 |
| Quarter mile || 17.1 sec @ 78.9 mph |
| Braking, 60-0 mph || 130 ft |
| Lateral acceleration || 0.72 g (avg) |
| MT figure eight || 30.1 sec @ 0.52 g (avg) |
| CONSUMER INFO |
| 3-month lease cost || $0 |
| Stability/traction control || Yes/yes |
| Airbags || Dual front, front head |
| Fuel capacity || 4.2 Kg (10,000 psi H2) |
| EPA city/hwy econ || 38.1 mi/Kg (H2) |
| Range || 160 miles |
| Co2 emisssions || 0 lb/mile (vehicle) |
| Required fuel || Hydrogen |