On the Road with GM's Newest Hydrogen Car General Motors has invested an estimated $1 billion in its newest hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, the Chevy Equinox. Even as GM touts the new car, detractors say fuel cell technology has a long way to go.
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On the Road with GM's Newest Hydrogen Car

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On the Road with GM's Newest Hydrogen Car

On the Road with GM's Newest Hydrogen Car

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This story is called How I Drove to Work Yesterday. I drove a revolutionary vehicle, courtesy of General Motors, with a man who thinks that millions of us may drive cars like it 10 or 20 years from now.

Mr. LARRY BURNS (Vice President, General Motors): We're trying to help our customers understand that it's a real car, that it has some benefits beyond what a conventional car has - I'll let you judge that when you drive it.


Mr. BURNS: And that if we can make this at a cost that's no more than today's cars and trucks, make it last as long as your car or truck today, you can be driving everyday with zero emissions, nothing but water, and you could be using energy that comes from a wide range of sources, and get us off our addiction to oil.

SIEGEL: That's Larry Burns, GM's vice president for R&D.

Burns believes he is planning for the next automotive revolution. Skeptics think he's dreaming, and we'll hear from one of them in a moment.

The vehicle that I drove yesterday was not a dream but rather a small SUV, a white Chevy Equinox that is powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell engine. Except for the drawings of molecules on the doors, it looks like an anonymous run-of-the-mill GM vehicle. It is anything but.

Mr. BURNS: Here's where the water comes out of the vehicle.

SIEGEL: Aha. Instead of an exhaust…

Mr. BURNS: Instead of an exhaust system, you're just simply…

SIEGEL: It comes with the four vents that…

Mr. BURNS: venting pure water vapor…

SIEGEL: …water drips out of.

Mr. BURNS: It's so pure you can drink it.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: And that's actually less water…

SIEGEL: I'll pass on that off.

Mr. BURNS: It's less water than you actually create when you're running a gasoline-engine car.


Mr. BURNS: But - that's why we can call this a zero-emission vehicle. Now, what we've done is we've…

SIEGEL: This is General Motor's fourth generation fuel-cell car. It has an electric motor - just no fuel injection, no pistons, no transmission, no motor oil. It is powered by a fuel cell. The fuel cell converts hydrogen gas into energy.

And to fill up the tank, assuming we're the hydrogen-filling station, it would pull up - and where is the…

Mr. BURNS: Yeah, you would fill up using the same concept as you were with gasoline. You would pull into a pump, and in this case, the pump would be providing hydrogen at high pressure.

SIEGEL: Here on this side of the car where we'd normally expect the nuzzle, it looks like something the size of the nuzzle on a garden hose.

Mr. BURNS: Robert, I think that's right analogy.

SIEGEL: Larry Burns is a believer. Where is the hydrogen coming from? Well, it would come mostly from natural gas, he says, and some would come from water. But is the whole process really cleaner and cheaper than conventional cars?

Mr. BURNS: We have a technique we call, Well-to-Wheel study. So it's an assessment of the entire life cycle of creating the energy, getting it to the vehicle, putting it in the tank and driving the vehicle. Today, there is 50 million tons of hydrogen being produced worldwide.

Now, to put that in perspective, if all of that that is currently being produced in the world was used in fuel-cell vehicles, you could fuel 200 million vehicles a year. Most of that hydrogen is made from natural gas. So again, if you want to get started, that's the way to get started. You reduce carbon dioxide by 60 percent, using natural gas to create hydrogen and hydrogen put into this vehicle.

SIEGEL: Larry Burns and GM have the help of some big-time boosters who are bullish on hydrogen fuel cells.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We happen to believe that fuel cells are the wave of the future, that fuel cells offer incredible opportunity.

SIEGEL: But there are skeptics, who think that President Bush, General Motors and Larry Burns are being wildly unrealistic. One of them is Joseph Romm, who worked in the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration and wrote the book "The Hype About Hydrogen." He now writes the blog climateprogress.org. What are we missing here? What's wrong with the fuel-cell idea for the automobile?

Mr. JOSEPH ROMM (Author, "The Hype About Hydrogen"): Well, a few things. The cars are wildly expensive. I think hydrogen is a diffused gas that is hard to stover on board. It's hard to move around the country, and it's pretty expensive. And, of course, where are you going to get the fuel? There aren't lots of hydrogen-fueling stations anywhere.

SIEGEL: Let's take that question. Twenty years ago, if you told me there'd be stores all over the country selling high-priced coffee at three times the price of a diner, with only a biscotti to eat, I'd say that's nuts marketing it seems Americans can do.

Mr. ROMM: Sure, on paper it's a good idea. The problem is that it costs a lot of money to build a hydrogen-fueling station. The one outside Washington, D.C. cost about $2 million. And we have 180,000 gasoline stations. People know there's going to be a station nearby, and competition keeps the price fair. I think it's going to be a long time before we see that amount of hydrogen-fueling stations.

SIEGEL: Does the macro equation of energy, if you had enough fueling stations and if you had a safe car and if you had a car that we could afford, does it check out? If you could convert the hydrogen for me to methane or from water, for that matter, into hydrogen, would it, in fact, be more energy efficient for the country to have millions of cars using that fuel?

Mr. ROMM: Well, I tend to think not. You know, making hydrogen from natural gas doesn't solve your fossil fuel, global warming problem. You'll still end up with greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Making it from water using renewable sources isn't a bad idea, but that uses a lot of energy. So, at the end of the day, you actually end up with, like, a quarter of the original energy in that renewable power.

SIEGEL: Well, for some answers to Joseph Romm's objections and a test drive the hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinox, we go back to my house yesterday morning in suburban Northern Virginia.

Well, I'm ready to drive.

Mr. BURNS: That's great.

SIEGEL: Now, the sound of my turning the car on, I'm pretty sure it will be very disappointing.

Mr. BURNS: Oh, this is a pretty quiet car.

SIEGEL: That's it. It's on, okay.

And quiet or not, it's off to Interstate 95.

I've got to say, if I hadn't known what I'm driving here, I wouldn't really know that I'm driving something other than an ordinary SUV. The only thing that feels very different to me is the touch of the brakes.

Mr. BURNS: Actually, if you drive hybrid vehicles, you'll get the same sensation on your brakes because we've got the brake system tied in with an electric-generating system.

SIEGEL: I've got to accelerate a bit here to merge into the highway, and it's accelerating very well. A very faint whine to the engine. That's very quiet, but I just hear that when I'm accelerating.

Mr. BURNS: Yeah, the one sound you do pick up are the compressors that are compressing the hydrogen.

SIEGEL: So, with a zero percent interest loan, a monthly payment of about $10,000 for five years, I can have the car.

Mr. BURNS: Well, I wish I can give you this one, Robert, but our goal - and it's really right on my own personal performance objectives is to create a design for these vehicles so that it cost no more than a conventional automobile. And that's important because if this car isn't wildly affordable, we won't sell a lot of them. If we don't sell a lot of them, we're not going to address the addiction to oil and the CO2 concerns that we all have. So, if fuel cells are only a niche technology, then we fail.

SIEGEL: You know, we've got all kinds of skeptical listeners right now saying, you know, you're trying to carry favor with the government to show you're doing something at GM. If you've been serious about this, we'd be driving this car, you know, five years ago or ten years ago.

Mr. BURNS: Well, first of all, this is all that we were doing, was to try to make a statement on public policy. We've invested a billion dollars to date in the development of this technology. So that's a pretty expensive way to make a statement. We set out back in the late 1990's on a mission to really get this proven for high-volume application.

I think we've made dramatic progress. Over the last seven years, for example, we've proven out the range. We just drove a fuel cell vehicle a couple of months ago, 300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen. We know it's safe so, yeah, would we like to have a non-American high volume today, right now? We certainly would. But we aren't on a path to get there as soon as possible. That's what we're working to do.

SIEGEL: Larry Burns talks about hitting the market in a small way in 2011. I pulled in to work, deftly avoiding the construction fence that NPR has erected in front of the building.

Right there.

Mr. BURNS: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: I want to put the thing here.

Mr. BURNS: If I told you how much this tank system cost, Robert, I'm sure you -make sure you make me a fence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You like this car. You like this car.

Mr. BURNS: I love this car. This is my baby.

SIEGEL: Will this baby grow up and reach maturity? Well, a lot of other people are betting on hybrids instead, and GM belatedly is getting active there. But you can't ignore the infectious look in Larry Burns' eye. At great cost, he has made this very extraordinary car pass for something ordinary. The baby is taking its first steps.


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