Commentary

Has General Motors killed the hydrogen car?

Maybe, but not on purpose.

When GM rolled out its Volt plug-in electric vehicle concept nearly two years ago and pledged to have the car on dealer lots by the end of 2010, it set off a worldwide race to develop a new-generation of battery technology that now is threatening to put the future of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to rest.

GM remains among the world’s auto makers most active in FCV development. Its Project Driveway program is placing 100 or so hydrogen-fed Chevrolet Equinox FCVs into the hands of average people in the U.S., China and Western Europe for some real-world testing over the next couple of years. Those Equinox FCVs are a marvel of engineering, packaging hydrogen fuel tanks, a fuel cell and sophisticated electronics into a mostly standard production vehicle that drives much like anything else on the road.

Honda also is pursuing FCVs with its Clarity, which is leased in limited numbers to California consumers. Toyota is set to lease its experimental FCHV-adv cross/utility vehicle to government agencies and others in Japan.

Germany’s BMW, meanwhile, is exploring hydrogen-fueled internal-combustion engines and has about 100 specially equipped 7-Series sedans running around the U.S. in test programs.

When the first real wave of modern EVs – headed by GM’s EV1 and Toyota’s RAV4 EV in the early 1990s – failed to catch on because of their short driving ranges and other impracticalities, auto makers began looking for a better answer and locked in on fuel cells.

With fuel cells designed to convert hydrogen to electricity, the auto industry believed it had a better long-term solution for weaning America off oil, because unlike plug-in vehicles that get their power off the electrical grid, FCVs could be refueled on the fly.

Of course, that’s assuming an infrastructure is created to produce the hydrogen, then deliver it to fuel pumps on every street corner in America. It’s a daunting task when viewed in full, leading Larry Burns, GM’s vice president-research and development and one of the auto industry’s most vocal backers of the technology, to propose the switch to the hydrogen economy be made in more digestible bites.

Putting pumps at 12,000 key refueling points would make hydrogen available to motorists every two miles (3.2 km) in America’s 100 most populous cities and cost a relatively economical $12 billion, Burns has pointed out.

But battery makers and other observers say not even that will be necessary, because the real answer to kicking the oil habit now lies in new-generation lithium-ion batteries that will power the Volt and a host of new plug-in hybrid- and pure-electric vehicles under development by Japanese, Korean, Chinese and European auto makers.

The Volt is targeting a range of 40 miles (64 km) between charges, but battery developers claim this is just the first wave in Li-ion technology, and smaller, more energy-dense and cost-effective cells will be possible in the future.

“No energy limit of lithium has been found yet. We are nowhere near the dynamic end of lithium energy,” says battery developer Electrovaya Inc.’s CEO, Sankar Dasgupta. “In contrast, hydrogen has very little energy.”

Philip Gott, a powertrain analyst for forecaster Global Insight, says there’s a better future for fuel cells in giant power plants used to supply electricity to the grid, rather than packed directly onboard vehicles themselves.

“The right way to use a fuel cell is a stationary fuel cell, a massive plant – an investment that can be spread across everybody that buys electricity,” Gott says.

Of course, no one knows for sure whether Li-ion will even succeed. Enormous cost issues remain, and it is unclear whether consumers will take to the concept of a plug-in vehicle in big numbers.

And many still believe this wave in Li-ion EVs and hybrids is simply a bridge to the fuel-cell future. For its part, GM says it is continuing its FCV research for now.

But until this latest attempt on battery-powered vehicles is proven one way or the other, FCV development appears destined for the back burner.

Fuel cells have three strikes against them, Gott says, pointing to the expensive precious metals they contain, hydrogen’s low energy content and the questionable wells-to-wheels efficiency of producing the fuel.

“Any one of those three issues is enough to put (fuel cells) to bed,” he says.

dzoia@wardsauto.com