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On the right is GM's fourth generation fuel cell stack, used in the 2007 Equinox FCV. On the left is the dramatically shrunk, lighter fuel cell, which still outputs the same power.  (Source: GM via Treehugger)

The old Equinox engine with its fuel cell system is seen on the left, with the petite new system on the right.  (Source: GM via Treehugger)
Company plans to sell vehicles with the system by 2015

Is the automotive market ready for fuel cell vehicles?  Is it even ready for electric vehicles?  

In both cases GM thinks the answer is "yes" and it is leading the charge to deploy these technologies.  The 2011 Chevy Volt, set to launch later this year, will be the first mass market electric vehicle to be sold in the U.S. (past EVs saw limited distribution).  And GM announced today that it was beginning testing of production-intent fuel cells in preparation for a 2015 fuel cell (FC) vehicle launch.

In 2008, we tested GM's Equinox FC vehicles on the roads of Las Vegas.  Since then the fleet has logged the most miles of any fuel cell fleet GM is aware of -- 1.3 million everyday miles in total.

GM has applied those lessons to make a dramatically improved next generation fuel cell systemdesign.  The design is 220 pounds lighter, is about half the size, and uses only about a third of the precious platinum that the 2008 cells used (80 grams used in the old stack, 30 g in the new stack).

Charles Freese, executive director of GM's Global Fuel Cell Activities states, "Our learning from Project Driveway has been tremendous and these vehicles have been very important to our program.  The 30 months we committed to the demonstration are winding down, but we will keep upgrades of these vehicles running and will continue learning from them while we focus efforts on the production-intent program for 2015."

The launch of official testing of the new design will coincide with the wind down of GM's 2007 project, dubbed "Project Driveway".  Elaborates Freese, "Some of the 119 fuel cell electric vehicles in Project Driveway will receive hardware and software upgrades and will become part of a technology demonstration program with the U.S. Department of Energy. Others will be driven by businesses and a few will be used to continue showing that, with proper fueling infrastructure, hydrogen fuel cells are a viable alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles.  We will continue to use the Project Driveway fleet strategically to advance fuel cell technology, hydrogen infrastructure, and GM's vehicle electrification goals."

Stephanie White, a fuel cell advocate who was among the first Project Driveway participants and is an avid blogger on hydrogen in the automotive sector, was the first individual to receive a long-term loan of the next generation fuel cell vehicle.  

She describes her past experiences, stating, "Driving the Chevy fuel cell around LA has been an amazing experience.  People are always stopping me to ask questions about the vehicle and I tell them how powerful and eco-friendly it is."

Durability remains a concern for the cells.  They currently are good for about 80,000 miles.  GM hopes to bump that to 120,000 miles by 2015.  GM also hopes to get the amount of platinum used in the stack under 10 g, while maintaining equivalent power.  By 2015 the company plans on producing about 10,000 fuel cell vehicles a year.

GM still faces significant challenges even if it can produce a moderately affordable fuel cell design.  Foremost is the lack of hydrogen infrastructure.  With no infrastructure in place throughout much of the country, FC vehicles may only be able to operate in limited areas like New York and California.


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RE: Electric is ready?
By acronos on 3/18/2010 5:38:54 PM , Rating: 2
The volt running on electric gets infinite mpg. The volt running on gas gets around 50mpg. Since most people drive < 40 miles/ day, that equates to a very high mpg. If you want to somehow include the electric in the mpg, then the cost of electricity also equates to a very high equivalent mpg.

I agree the number is inflated, but not as much as you imply.

RE: Electric is ready?
By porkpie on 3/18/2010 6:36:27 PM , Rating: 2
"I agree the number is inflated, but not as much as you imply."

Using EPA's hybrid methodology and assuming an average commute, it gets around 100mpg. Using its gas engine only, it gets 48 mpg:

Whether or not you consider 230mpg as "inflated" over that, I leave to your opinion.

RE: Electric is ready?
By acronos on 3/18/2010 7:26:28 PM , Rating: 2
Your article refers to "somewhere north of 100". Nobody knows what the real result by the EPA will be, but GM is estimating 230mpg.

Your site also tells you that the average driver would only use gas 15% of the time. Using 48mpg on gas, that calculates out to 48mpg/.15= 320mpg .

How you factor in the electricity is the real question. I would do it like this:
The battery only charges half way so it consumes 7kwh of electricity + charge loses. If we estimate very high 20% charge losses gives 8.4kwh of electricity per trip on average. The cost of electricity where I live is $0.07/kwh, but the average cost in the US is $0.11/kwh. So 8.4kwh*$0.11/kwh= 92 cents per 40 miles for electricity.

.92 $/40 miles
$2.788 $/gallon (us average)
$2.788/$.023 = 121.21 mpg on electric (cost equivalent)

15% * 48mpg + 85% * 121 mpg = 110.05 mpg .

So, yes, north of 100. But also, yes I think that's pretty good.

RE: Electric is ready?
By porkpie on 3/18/2010 9:35:21 PM , Rating: 2
"So, yes, north of 100. But also, yes I think that's pretty good."

Please don't misrepresent the article. It concludes that most drivers would experience somewhere between 48 and 100 mpg:
"While not a bad number," Autoblog Green notes, 48 mpg is "no where near reflective of what the Volt could achieve in the real world for most drivers." If GM's claims about the car are true, the 100mpg number would be closer to most people's actual experience of driving the car.

Myself, I don't know what the Volt will do. But I know relying on the '40 mile' figure is going to yield unrealistic results for many people. Especially in very cold weather, a Volt will probably get less than half that. And even in ideal conditions, the 40 mile range relies heavily on regenerative braking...which is going to require some driver retraining to achieve.

RE: Electric is ready?
By theendofallsongs on 3/18/2010 10:22:08 PM , Rating: 2
Volt is same as any other electric car. When you have to run the heater or the a/c while stuck in city traffic, you're MPG is going to dissapear.

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