Commentary

Many in the auto industry, as well as the research community, insist hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for public consumption are so far down the road that they are seen only as a long-term clean fuel alternative to oil.

Yet, a race to market appears to be under way.

Promising to have a commercially viable fuel-cell vehicle in dealer showrooms by 2012, General Motors recently took its Chevrolet Sequel FCV for a 304-mile (489-km) test drive on one tank of hydrogen.

The trip through rural New York, from Honeoye Falls to Tarrytown, was made carrying 18 lbs. (8 kg) of hydrogen, the equivalent of 16 gallons (61L) of gasoline. A GM spokeswoman says the car could have traveled 40-50 miles (69-80 km) further on the same tank.

With the pump prices of unleaded gas flirting with $4 per gallon in some states, the Sequel’s numbers look pretty inviting.

Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development, says the Sequel’s real-world fuel mileage “clearly shows our vision for the future of the automobile is real and sustainable.”

To demonstrate that belief, GM plans to lease more than 100 FVCs this fall to the general public in the form of Chevy Equinox cross/utility vehicles, upping its retail fleet to 1,000 units between 2010-2012 in areas of the country where hydrogen infrastructure permits convenient refueling.

Feeling the heat from both eco-critics and the White House, car companies are expanding their FCV lease programs to general retail customers, while others are stepping up research efforts.

Toyota and DaimlerChrysler spokesmen say they have no current plans for public-retail programs. However, both have test fleets in use at universities and private companies. BMW also has exclusive test fleets here and overseas.

Honda, which currently is leasing two FCVs to private U.S. customers for $500 per month, says it is launching a new program that will lease to many more retail customers in the country next year.

Honda recently showed off its next-generation FCX fuel-cell vehicle to the media, noting it currently costs the auto maker $1 million to hand-build a single unit.

The latest model, which has increased in size equal to a midsize car, is miles ahead of the previous-generation FCX in styling and comfort. And it cost less to produce “due to various advancements that get us closer to mass production,” a Honda spokesman says.

Honda uses a smaller, more powerful fuel stack on the new FCX that generates 134 hp, giving the electric motor a maximum output of 127 hp. Maximum torque is 186 lb.-ft (256 Nm). Driving range for the vehicle is 270 miles (440 km), about 30% greater than the previous model.

Skeptics claim even if auto makers were able to turn out FCVs by the millions, the current lack of infrastructure would prevent widespread distribution of hydrogen for refueling.

While few dispute this, GM already is taking the technology to the next level. Burns, who is overseeing the auto maker’s E-Flex project, says the goal is to develop a plug-in electric vehicle architecture that can be powered by advanced battery or hydrogen fuel-cell technology – all with an eye toward volume production and a cost equal to today’s gasoline-powered vehicles.

“Certainly, one of these will work out,” he says, adding by the end of 2009, “we’ll have a technology that can go head-to-head with current vehicles in terms of performance and costs.”

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com