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Driving the fuel-cell cars of tomorrow

Consumer Reports News: June 12, 2007 10:31 PM

Automakers are taking differing approaches to reducing petroleum use, from building cars that run on E85 ethanol, to plug-in hybrid vehicles (short-range electric vehicles with a gas engine for longer trips), to fuel-cell electric vehicles that run on hydrogen produced from natural gas.

We recently had a chance to sample two such fuel-cell vehicles, and talk to their automakers about their approaches to alternative fuel technology. The differences were enlightening.

In Washington, we drove the next generation Honda FCX, a midsized, four-passenger sedan with a 95 kilowatt (127-horsepower) motor, and a 100 kW fuel-cell. Honda is targeting a 270-mile range on four kilograms of compressed hydrogen, stored in a 5,000 psi tank that takes up much of the trunk.

In suburban New York City, around the corner from our Yonkers offices, we drove General Motors' Sequel fuel-cell SUV--now known as a Chevrolet. The company had just driven two of the vehicles 300 miles from Rochester, New York, on hydrogen produced from renewable sources, the company says. Both Sequels had enough fuel left over for 50 miles more travel.

The Sequel uses three electric motors to achieve all-wheel-drive, one for the front axle and one on each rear wheel. Combined, they produce 115 kilowatts (154-horsepower), from a fuel cell rated at 73 kW. One key difference between the GM and Honda vehicles is that the Sequel uses three smaller hydrogen tanks pressurized to 10,000 psi. to store 8 kg of hydrogen, giving it the range advantage over the Honda.

After driving both of them, a few conclusions stand out:

  • Although neither manufacturer claimed its prototype was as well-finished as a production car, the FCX seemed ready for production, while the Sequel was more of a fully functional, highway-capable concept vehicle.
  • While GM is pursuing a truly revolutionary vision of future automobile design, Honda is focused on a much nearer-term goal of using fuel cells, and today's imperfect hydrogen production technology, to power cars otherwise similar to those we drive today.
  • Fuel cells are so efficient, that even given the fact that most hydrogen today comes from non-renewable natural gas, it may represent a significant and real energy savings for some cars to use them as an alternative to gasoline. In that light, fuel-cell cars may not be as far away as they once seemed.
  • Since the vision General Motors is pursuing involves so many radical changes to vehicle design as well as to refueling infrastructure, the U.S.-based company is also working hard to develop other technologies, such as flex-fuel cars that can run on ethanol and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in the meantime. Honda is instead focused almost entirely on developing fuel cell cars and the infrastructure needed to run them.

In future blogs, we'll give more detail about each of these points as we examine the road to the hydrogen future.

--Eric Evarts

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