The other day we learned Hyundai aims to build 1,000 Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) beginning this year, and some of you wondered what GM was doing in this arena while a few answered “no” and others said "yes" to the question in the headline, “is hydrogen the future?”

According to GM, regarding fuel cell technology it pioneered in 1968 and present day iterations it says ought to be production ready by 2015-16, the answer is actually a qualified “yes.”

So then what does GM have to announce? Actually nothing at the moment, but GM’s Randy Fox, manager, Electric Vehicle Technology Communications said things are proceeding with two hydrogen fuel cell projects, one announced in September 2006, begun in October 2007; the other was announced May 2010 and got started February this year.



 

Begun in 2007, Project Driveway is the largest-ever fuel cell demonstration fleet and has involved as many as 119 de-badged converted Chevy Equinox FCVs in the hands of private citizens and agencies in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. and internationally, that have now accumulated over 2.5 million miles.

“There are roughly 100 Fuel Cell Equinox's still in-service,” said Fox yesterday. “Mainly in the U.S. and a few in Europe and Japan.”

When Car & Driver did an update in March 2010 on Project Driveway, the miles racked up were estimated at 1.2 million, so they’ve been busy with their data acquisition.



 

The other FCV project is in conjunction with the U.S. Pacific Command and the Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative (H2I) which we reported in February this year.

“In addition to 'Project Driveway,' GM is also involved in the H2I initiative,” said Fox. “GM announced in May 2010 that it has a memorandum of understanding with The Gas Company in Hawaii to cooperate on a fueling infrastructure on the island that would take hydrogen from key points along The Gas Company's 1,100-mile synthetic natural gas pipeline for use as transportation fuel for fuel cell vehicles.”

This project has begun with similar Chevy FCVs being paid for by the Army Tank Automotive Research Development Engineering Center (TARDEC), Office of Naval Research and Air Force Research Laboratories (ONR) and Air Force Research Laboratories (AFRL).



 

As equipped, they can travel up to 200 miles on a single charge, refuel in five minutes and produce zero emissions. They could also lead to tactical vehicles later, as the military is keen on sustainable hardware that has the extra added bonus of independence from vulnerable fuel supply chains.

Other drivers for fuel cell technology include mandates by the California Air Resources Board, Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules and European legislation. These, you know, are pushing for energy security and emission reductions.

Political and technological constraints notwithstanding, GM ( and its FCV partner BMW – which by the way is also working with Toyota ) is not alone with fuel cell irons in the fire as efforts are also underway by some of the other usual OE players, including (as mentioned) Toyota , Hyundai, Honda , Nissan , and Daimler .

While GM has not announced a production fuel cell program, and “will not speculate” when it will, we may be hearing something in the next couple years or so given one definitive statement.

“We do believe fuel cells can be commercialized by 2015/2016 time frame, in limited quantities, in specific geographic regions where refueling infrastructures exist,” Fox said.

But while we hear GM talk middle of this decade – along with other OEs – is hydrogen really “the future?”



 

It has a future, but we’re not there yet, are we?

Really, GM’s hydrogen fuel cell effort for now could be seen as fitting the “all-of-the-above” approach that includes moves toward natural gas, all-electric, and extended-range electric, not to mention higher-tech ICE vehicles that will also be made as squeaky clean as possible in years to come.

As for fuel cells, GM’s Honeoye Falls Fuel Cell Facility in Haneoye Falls, NY is an epicenter for GM’s move toward overcoming the chicken and egg issues involving FCVs.

“Given the depth and breath of GM, these cars were designed and developed globally,” said Fox. “Honeoye Falls was instrumental in the development of the fuel cell system that went into the Project Driveway cars.”


 

We’re presuming Honeoye Falls’ was also involved in the H2I cars, as it has quite the resume. Its two buildings comprise 160,000 square-feet; the campus was opened in 1999 and is dedicated to battery and fuel cell research, development and prototyping.

Two facilities make up the Honeoye Falls, Battery and Fuel Cell Campus with on site capability for materials development and integration, engineering development, controls and software development, as well as prototyping of complete battery and fuel cell systems

There GM’s more than 360 employees presently earning around $29 million in annual wages are building on the company’s proud R&D legacy that it would like to ultimately see pay off.

Record of Technology Leadership

• 1968 World’s first operational fuel cell powered vehicle
• 1997 First GM fuel cell vehicle propulsion concept – Geneva Motor Show
• 1998 First GM drivable fuel cell vehicle (methanol powered) – Paris Motor Show
• 2000 First GM direct hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCEV) Set 15 endurance and speed records
• 2001 World’s first FCEV with full functionality
• 2004 Introduced Fuel Cell Stack with best in class power density
• 2006 FCEV to demonstrate 300 mile range in real world driving conditions
• 2007 Project Driveway Launch – World’s Largest Market Test of Hydrogen FCEV
• 2008 All 119 Project Driveway Vehicles on the road globally
• 2009 Project Driveway Accumulates first million miles in real world driving with real customers
• 2010 GM Introduces Next Gen technology power module – reduced weight, volume and cost

Fast Facts and Certifications

• 1990 - GM began working on hydrogen fuel cell technology at Los Alamos National Lab until 1996
• 1996 - 1999 GM group moved to Metro Park facility in Rochester, NY
• 1999 - Opened Fuel Cell R&D Center in Honeoye Falls (10 Carriage Street)
• 2002 – Opened Fuel Cell Product Engineering and Prototype facility (11 Carriage Street)
• 2009 – Added Battery R&D and prototyping capability



 

So you can see, even if all we hear these days is news about the Volt, Spark EV and Cadillac ELR, GM’s hydrogen project is still active if not in the spotlight at the moment.

For a general perspective, I also called the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association in Washington, D.C., and spoke to its President and Executive Director, Morry Markowitz.

After discussion issues for a bit I asked if hydrogen takes more energy to produce than it provides, as I've seen people say, and does it keep us dependent on petroleum producers?

I was trying to get answers to such comments I've seen as this:


“BIG PETROL” is recklessly & irresponsibly flexing its muscle throughout the industrialized world!!!…
The ONE issue this topic/videos doesn’t resolve (or even discuss) is how hydrogen can be produced —RENEWABLY— then distributed to owners of H2 fuel-cell powered vehicles! And this is really the one issue that completely dwarfs every other challenge, including the cost of vehicular fuel cells!!!



Making hydrogen is very simply a net-energy loser…. the energy used to crack the hydrogen from water would be better off being directly inputted into the vehicle i.e. nat gas or the electricity….
Don’t the car companies know this?


 

I noted these and other such objections the other day. So, I asked, is hydrogen a net energy loser?

“For the foreseeable (near term) future fuel cell powered vehicles are the only zero-emission technology available that will totally replicate today’s driver experience of being able to drive 300-500 miles and being able to refuel the car in 2-5 minutes,” Markowitz said.

Good point, I thought, but that wasn’t quite an answer to my question, so I tried asking again.

Markowitz said hydrogen is a transformational technology, provides domestic energy security, has ability to power a large spectrum of vehicles, and is increasingly reliant on renewable sources .

Yes, but is it a net energy loser? People on GM-Volt have said it is, so I asked again.

“As a net energy loser I do not believe that is a correct assessment,” he said,

Aha! Now I'm getting somewhere, I thought. I humbly asked, may I ask why?

He went on to say that all energy technologies have their pluses and minuses and talked about that for a bit. He reminded me also the internal combustion engine was not born a mature technology and took decades to go from huffing and puffing small scale oddities to being mass production viable.

Closing our talk, we agreed he had not gone beyond "pluses and minuses" answering my question as to hydrogen's ultimate viability.

The FCHEA is an advocacy group in Washington after all, so perhaps this was as direct an answer as I was going to get, so I thanked him, and moved on.


 

Later yesterday afternoon, I sent questions to GM’s Randy Fox who did answer in good faith, with my thanks. Some of which you've seen answers to, and the final two follow:

GM-V: What does GM see as the biggest impediment to FCV viability?

Fox: “GM is a leader in fuel cell technology proven by our “Project Driveway” demonstration program. Fuel cells can power a wide range of vehicle applications, while providing 300-plus+ miles of range and 3 minute refueling times. The question right now is how quickly the infrastructure will develop. A U.S. study showed that nationwide seeding of 12,000 hydrogen stations would cost between $10 billion and $15 billion which would be enough to support 1 million fuel cell vehicles. Ultimately deployment volumes will be determined by hydrogen fueling infrastructure growth and customer demand. As with all new technologies, hydrogen fuel cell costs will come down through generational learning cycles and ramping of volume to achieve economies of scale.”

GM-V: Is hydrogen a “net energy loser?” Does this keep the industry dependent on petroleum?

Fox: “I'm not sure what you mean by ‘net energy loser.’ Hydrogen production can be cost competitive with gasoline on an energy equivalency basis, especially in locations where excess hydrogen production capacity currently exists. There are hydrogen production facilities located all across the U.S. in nearly every major city. Because fuel cell vehicles can be approximately twice as efficient as today’s gasoline internal combustion engines, hydrogen can be twice the price of gasoline (on an energy equivalent) and still be cost competitive.”


Before decisions were finalized for our favorite E-REV, GM was talking about producing a fuel-cell Volt in 2011.

So some of you asked for an update, and here you have it, such as it is

Short answer made long is an industry group in Washington and General Motors – not to mention a raft of other global OEs and the U.S. military – are among those spending billions to make FCVs happen on a commercial scale; first with fleets, with consumer vehicles expected to follow. The timeline for when the ball gets rolling in earnest is being said to be a 2-4 years out or sooner and as you know, some are already making first stage production plans now.

How long it takes after that before you see a competitively priced FCV at your local dealer remains unknown. Whether this car will share space with the expanded, multi-model Voltec line is also unknown.

What is known is big players are sharing as much info as they wish, depending on their agenda, but otherwise are running the fuel cell ball toward an end zone, and no one is saying the game is not still very much on.