by: Joel Makower

It's been a pretty tough week in Detroit, with the major auto companies reeling from layoffs and setbacks. On Saturday, two front-page stories captured the mood.

The New York Times ("Detroit Flails in Latest Effort to Reinvent Itself") noted that "Detroit is running low on optimism," while the Wall Street Journal ("Ford and Chrysler Show Dark Outlook For U.S. Car Makers") dubbed the previous day "Black Friday" after both Ford and Chrysler "acknowledged that their strategies for outracing high gas prices, fickle consumer tastes, and relentless global competition had hit the wall." Both stories also noted General Motor's ongoing downsizings and plant closings.

But amid it all, I managed to find a small beacon of hope.

Earlier in the week, I spent two days in Southern California with a group of journalists, activists, and others, listening to GM executives unveil its plans for a hydrogen-powered future. Specifically, the company announced a small roll-out of the Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell vehicle next year, and allowed us to test drive the Chevy Sequel, its next-gen hydrogen-powered car. (I attended this event in two roles: As a journalist and blogger, and as senior consultant at GreenOrder, the sustainability strategy firm of which GM is a client.)

Over the past year or so, as the hype about hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles, and electric cars has reached cruising speed, talk of the once-ballyhooed hydrogen highway seems to have slowed to a crawl. The long time horizons, the enormous costs of developing a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, and a lack of certainty about the optimal technology for making hydrogen in the first place -- all seemed to have relegated fuel cells to a "maybe someday" status. (Joe Romm's book, The Hype About Hydrogen, offers the best articulation of this perspective.)

But don't tell that to GM. They've got plans -- and cars -- that they say we'll be driving in the next few years.

GM will begin placing "more than 100" Equinoxes -- a "crossover" vehicle that is somewhere between a passenger car and an SUV -- with customers next fall as part of a deployment plan dubbed "Project Driveway." The goal is to gain real-world understanding of the customer experience through what GM calls "the first meaningful market test of fuel-cell vehicles anywhere." A variety of individuals representing a range of driving styles and operating environments will drive these vehicles and refuel them with hydrogen in three geographic areas: Southern California, metropolitan New York City, and Washington D.C.

To be sure, 100 fuel cell cars on American roads is barely a blip, but GM clearly gets that it's going to take a massive effort to positively affect climate change, oil shortages, and other environmental challenges. "We're only going to solve these world problems if people buy these in the millions and tens of millions," Byron McCormick, Executive Director of GM's Fuel Cell Activities, told us, adding, "This has moved from a science project to something pretty real."

Right behind the Equinox is the aptly named Sequel (pictured above), which represents GM's fourth-generation hydrogen vehicle. It goes from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds, accelerates to 90 miles an hour, and can travel 300 miles between fuelings. As GM described it, the Sequel is

the first vehicle in the world to successfully integrate a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system with a broad menu of advanced technologies such as steer- and brake-by-wire controls, wheel hub motors, lithium-ion batteries, and a lightweight aluminum structure.

We were allowed to drive the Sequel along a 25-mile course at Camp Pendleton, about 80 miles south of Los Angeles. (The poignant irony of driving a hydrogen-powered car on an active U.S. Marine base the day after the 9/11 anniversary, with helicopters performing training maneuvers overhead, was not lost on some of us.) What was most remarkable about the car was that it wasn't particularly remarkable -- it drove nicely, accelerated well, and handled smoothly, much like a "normal" car.

Where will the Sequel and Equinox get their fuel? Phil Baxley, a VP at Shell Hydrogen, which launched a partnership with GM in 2003 to "make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles a commercially viable reality," told us that Shell is rolling out a small network of stations in coordination with vehicle manufacturers and local governments. Baxley envisions a larger rollout of stations in the 2015-2025 time frame, though market drivers and world events could accelerate that. It didn't sound simple, and it won't be.

GM's wasn't the only major fuel-cell vehicle announcement last week. BMW announced the Hydrogen 7, "the world's first hydrogen-drive luxury performance automobile," which it says "will be built in a limited series in Europe and driven in the US and other countries by selected users in 2007." The car is equipped with an internal combustion engine capable of running either on hydrogen or on gasoline and based on the BMW 7 Series. BMW -- who's latest green tagline is "Sustainability. It can be done." -- claims that switching the car from one fuel to the other is simple.

The driver is able to switch from hydrogen to gasoline mode manually by pressing a button on the multifunction steering wheel. Because engine power and torque remain exactly the same regardless of the mode of operation, switching from one mode to another has no effect on the driving behavior and performance of the BMW Hydrogen 7.

So, is hydrogen ready for prime time? Hardly. Both BMW and GM have long roads to travel. GM in particular must reinvent itself as a leaner, greener car company, pushing not just hydrogen, but a full spectrum of technologies: hybrids, plug-ins, electrics, flex-fuels, and more efficient gas-powered engines. And -- oh, yeah -- make cars that people want to buy and love to drive.

I'll admit to having imbibed some of the Kool-Aid this past week. The Hydrogen Economy isn't upon us, by any means, but it's not as far off as I'd thought. And I'm more than a tad skeptical that the U.S. auto industry can revive itself and regain its footing, let alone be a green leader.

But in my continual see-saw battle between cynicism and hopefulness, the balanced tipped, if only fleetingly: Last week, hope won out.

Original Post: http://makower.typepad.com/joel_makower/2006/09/h2oh_the_electr.html

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