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GM Takes a Radical Turn With Its Hy-Wire Hydrogen-Powered Car

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Times Staff Writer

The driver looks through a vast, sloped windshield that covers space usually taken up by an engine. There is no dashboard, instrument panel, steering wheel or pedals -- just a set of adjustable footrests. All controls are electronic, so that the driver twists a pair of handles to go, moves them to turn and squeezes them to stop.

This, though, is no Hollywood moviemaker’s fantasy car.

It is General Motors Corp.’s Hy-Wire, a hydrogen-fueled, electricity-producing concept car that the company debuted in Sacramento last week. The car’s fuel cell produces 94 kilowatts of power; that’s equal to 126 horsepower, about the same as in a Ford Focus. The Hy-Wire, which generates a loud whine when moving, can travel 140 miles before refueling.

Efforts to produce environmentally friendly, hydrogen-powered automobiles were raised to new levels of visibility last month, when President Bush in his State of the Union speech pledged to provide $1.2 billion to further fuel-related research.

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In addition to GM, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and others have spent billions developing alternative-fuel vehicles.

But some experts say that of all the automakers, GM is racing out ahead, developing cars that not only use hydrogen instead of gasoline but also replace old-fashioned hydraulic and mechanical parts, including brakes and steering systems, with high-tech electronics.

In fact, the company has vowed to become the first carmaker to sell a million fuel-cell vehicles and expects to start putting them on the market in 2010 -- five to 10 years sooner than the timetable cited by most of its competitors.

Some believe that GM is overreaching, but others are convinced that it will be able to meet its goal.

“GM has always been out there, pushing on technology, but has been quiet for competitive reasons,” said David Cole, director of the nonprofit Altarum Institute’s Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Now they are taking the wraps off.”

The company chose California to unveil its hydrogen car in part because several key pieces were developed here. But the main reason is that GM is hoping to improve its relationship with state officials.

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GM already is suing California in U.S. District Court in Fresno to block imposition of the state’s zero-emissions rules. Those regulations would require automakers to build thousands of electric vehicles using rechargeable storage battery technology.

But the auto industry contends that conventional, electric-powered cars are too expensive and too limited in range to be profitably marketed.

“Mandates don’t work,” said Elizabeth Lowery, GM’s vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs. “We have actual products here already and a commitment to the future vision of fuel cells.”

For their part, regulators maintain that the rules have forced the auto industry to develop advanced technologies and cleaner-running engines that otherwise would have been ignored. A March 27 hearing that could lead to revisions of the mandate has been scheduled by the California Air Resources Board.

To drum up support for its position, GM brought a dozen vehicles to Sacramento, including a diesel car, a fuel-cell-powered van and early versions of three types of gasoline-electric hybrid cars that it plans to sell in the next five years.

But the Hy-Wire, the vehicle furthest from reality, was the star of the show.

The name was ginned up by the son of a GM executive and represents the vehicle’s principal characteristics: hydrogen fuel and drive-by-wire technology.

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Gone are the fluid reservoirs and hydraulic pumps and lines that occupy so much space in a contemporary car. They are replaced by aerospace-developed systems that control steering, braking and acceleration electronically. The concept car has no rearview mirror, but rather a trio of small, rear-facing cameras that provide a real-time image on a big screen in the center of the steering console.

Most visitors trying out the Hy-Wire needed at least 10 minutes to feel comfortable with the car’s controls, although a 16-year-old who grew up with a computer game joystick in hand would probably get the hang of it in a few seconds.

Beneath the passenger cabin is an 11-inch-thick aluminum frame that holds all of the electric motors, microprocessors, mechanical parts, fuel-cell components, hydrogen tanks and other systems needed to operate the vehicle. The control wiring is carried in a single harness and permits designers to locate the operating controls virtually anywhere in the wide-open interior.

The compact, flat profile of GM’s fuel cell -- about the size of a personal computer -- freed auto designers from the strictures imposed by making room for a hefty internal combustion engine. “It gave us freedom we’d never before imagined,” said Ed Welburn, GM’s executive design director for body-on-frame vehicles.

Cole, of the automotive research center, went so far as to call the car’s platform “the most revolutionary concept seen in this business in modern times.”

Still, there are no guarantees that GM can bring the Hy-Wire to the showroom floor -- especially as fast as it claims.

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One of the biggest stumbling blocks in developing fuel-cell vehicles is the lack of a nationwide hydrogen supply system -- akin to a gasoline service station network -- to power up these advanced cars and trucks. Environmentalists and automakers alike hope that the Bush administration’s commitment for hydrogen fuel research will help overcome this in the next 15 to 20 years.

GM is betting that the solutions will arrive even sooner. Meeting a 2010 schedule “is certainly possible,” said Ron Cogan, publisher of the San Luis Obispo-based Green Car Journal, a newsletter covering the alternative fuel and vehicle markets. “But it all depends on the fuel industry getting there in time.”

When hydrogen fuel is readily available, automakers say they will be able to provide cars that produce no emissions and greatly reduce the nation’s dependence on oil.

GM has spent almost $1 billion on fuel-cell development over the last few years and says it spent more than that developing its now-canceled EV1 battery electric car.

“But spending is just part of it,” Cole noted. “Outsmarting the opposition is another part.” Indeed, Toyota, Honda and DaimlerChrysler are seen as fierce rivals to GM for fuel-cell supremacy over the long haul.

Most of GM’s hydrogen car’s electric motor drive system was developed at its advanced propulsion unit in Torrance.

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That group now is busy on what GM fuel-cell technology director Byron McCormick calls “the real breakthrough work” of putting individual drive motors on each of the vehicle’s four wheels. The idea is to create the first fuel-cell-powered all-wheel-drive system.

The three tanks that hold Hy-Wire’s hydrogen fuel, compressed at 5,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, were developed by an Irvine firm, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide Inc. The company has since come up with the industry’s first 10,000-psi tanks, which promise to sharply increase the car’s driving range to 230 miles.

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