June 18, 2008 / 7:30 PM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Four days at the wheel of a hydrogen car

Nichola Groom covers alternative energy issues in the United States for Reuters News. Based in Los Angeles, she has spent the last six months reporting on the burgeoning renewables industry, visiting facilities that turn cow manure into natural gas and the sun’s heat into electricity. In the following story, she reports on driving a hydrogen-powered car.

A Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell test vehicle is driven in Los Angeles in this June 10, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Nichola Groom

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - I love my cute, zippy little Mini Cooper, but lately I’ve been cursing it each time I spend more than $50 to fill up.

So, when GM offered me the chance to test-drive a car that runs on hydrogen, I thought it would be a good way not only to save on gas but also to try a technology that some tout as the long-term answer to the emissions contributing to climate change.

And, I thought: “Just think of the bragging rights.”

Before I could get behind the wheel, I had to go through an orientation. There, I saw a slide demonstrating the difference between what happens when there is a fuel leak in a hydrogen car versus a gasoline-powered car.

Because hydrogen is lighter than air, the hydrogen car had a thin flame shooting upwards at the rear of the car. The gas car, meanwhile, was completely engulfed in flames.

With that, I was ready to take a look at my car. There are just 100 hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinox cars in the country, and for four days, one of them would be mine.

The dashboard of a Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell test vehicle is seen in Los Angeles in this June 10, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

(Other car makers are also developing hydrogen-powered vehicles. Honda said this week it had begun production of the FCX Clarity, planning to release 200 of them in Japan and the United States over the next three years.)

At first glance, the Equinox looked like a regular SUV, except for the words “GM Fuel Cell” on the side next to a design showing dozens of water molecules — not exactly subtle.

On closer inspection, I noticed it had no tailpipe. Instead, water vapor is emitted from four thin outlets in the back of the vehicle. It felt like hot air.

Inside, the instrument panel has a gauge that measures how much power is being used, in kilowatts, and the fuel gauge icon looks like a gas pump with an “H” on it for hydrogen.

But it wasn’t until I turned the car on that I noticed the big difference — no noise. Without the hum of a combustion engine, it didn’t feel right.

From the outside, you can hear airy, swooshing sounds as it powered up and down, which several people I drove with likened to the sound of a very quiet jet engine.


On the road, it felt normal except for the high-pitched whistle of compressing gas, a near-constant reminder that I was in a different kind of car.

Another difference was its acceleration. Because the engine doesn’t have to shift gears, it speeds up with remarkable smoothness.

Slideshow (2 Images)

But here’s the big drawback to hydrogen-powered cars. The Equinox has a range of only 160 to 200 miles on a full tank of hydrogen, and mine only lasted about two days. There are only four places in the Los Angeles area where you can refuel.

I took the car to a station near GM’s training center, about a 20-minute drive from where I work. A GM engineer refueled for me, a process that took about 15 minutes for half a tank.

My fuel was paid for by GM, but in the real world the cost of making and distributing hydrogen is another drawback of the fuel cell vehicle. Common methods of making hydrogen also require energy and produce greenhouse gases.

The most fun I had was seeing other people’s reactions. When I took the car to my husband’s office to show it off, his co-workers crowded around to check it out.

“This is the future, with $5 gas,” one said.

On the road, I got a few shouts from onlookers. “Nice car!” one man yelled as I drove by. “Can I drive that car?” asked a driver as he sped past.

Sorry guys. For all its appeal, this car is still years away from going to market.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Eddie Evans)

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