Driving the HydroGen1 is an interesting affair, to be sure. Delayed a day and yet to be seen, I began to wonder if there were going to be any driving impressions at all. How would I break this news to the general public, how would I return from Brussels with no story?
At the 11th hour, HydroGen1 was ready. The odometer reading of 1,574 kilometers fills me with awe - to be one of the world's select handful to have actually driven a wholly hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car imparts a certain "celebrity" mindset. So much for the "impartial journalist" facade.
No witty words come to mind to christen my maiden voyage, no "one small kilometer for man," so the moment passes without remark. Still, it is exciting.
There are three "gears" on Hydro-Gen1 - forward, stop and reverse - with a simple click of the shifter the car propels forward through the preset course the Opel folks have set up.
The fuel cell-powered Zafira is torquey and quick in short bursts, a commuter's dream, really. Two aspects are a bit unsettling, though: The accelerator and brake pedals seem too close together, a bothersome and awkward arrangement. The second concern is the sputtering hum and obvious gargling sound emanating from the "engine."
This, my Belgian friends point out, is attributed to the three-phase synchronous motor, and I am assured that any production hydrogen-powered drivetrain will be completely noiseless. GM still is testing and shopping different motors.
Then it happens. HydroGen1 stalls as I approach the turnaround point. I can see on a small computer screen a flashing red light indicating some malfunction along the drivetrain. There, in the middle of Belgium with another journalist and two technicians next to me, I had broken Opel's one-of-a-breed fuel-cell car.
How many years would it take to work off an irreplaceable prototype of this magnitude? Let's see, $7 an hour, 40 hours a week... . How far to the Soviet border?
Seeing my panic and anxiety, the tech-nicians calm me in broken English with instructions to simply tumble the key backward and restart the whole gurgling conglomeration. Grateful for the engineers' expertise, I do as they say and the vehicle re-starts.
As the Opel fellows indifferently shrug it off, casually mentioning this sort of thing is business as usual for prototypes, a seed of resentment toward my editorial mentors is sown - couldn't they have mentioned this before I drove the world's most advanced operational fuel-cell vehicle?