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GM to lend SUVs to prove hydrogen fuel holds water

Times Staff Writer

Remember the hydrogen highway?

Despite a ton of hoopla and billions of dollars in research, that particular road to energy independence and a cleaner environment isn’t in danger of a SigAlert. In fact, some experts say it’s a dead end in the search for more fuel-efficient transportation.

General Motors Corp., along with a few other carmakers, thinks otherwise. GM launched Operation Driveway this week, setting in motion its long-promised program to put fuel-cell vehicles in the hands of average drivers for extended real-world road testing.

More than 100 fuel-cell-equipped Chevy Equinox sport utility vehicles will be used in the test, divided about 60/40 between Los Angeles and New York.

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The goal of what GM is calling the “first large-scale market test” of fuel-cell vehicles is to introduce the two coasts to a technology that is viewed by many as too expensive and difficult to use -- which, according to GM, it isn’t.

“When people really experience these vehicles and understand how easy they are to refuel, I think that will help dissuade a lot of people about the myths that surround hydrogen,” said Byron McCormick, executive director of fuel-cell activities for GM.

Fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity in a chemical reaction whose only byproduct is water. In the Equinox, the cell powers an electric motor that can run for about 150 miles on one tank of hydrogen.

GM has a link on its website ( www.chevrolet.com/fuelcell/checkzipcode) where people can sign up for the program. About 10,000 have expressed interest and some 3,000 have filled out the online registration form.

GM representatives met with prospective test drivers in Los Angeles last week, looking for a cross section in terms of age, location and driving habits. The Equinoxes will be delivered beginning in January for a three-month test period. The vehicle and fuel will be free, and GM will provide 24/7 roadside assistance.

In return, the automaker wants feedback.

“We’ve already started designing the next-generation fuel-cell vehicle, so we want to know what people are seeing,” McCormick said. “We’re going to experience that whole brave new world with them.”

GM estimates that at least 800 families and individuals will get a turn with the Equinoxes over the 3 1/2 -year life of the project. The SUVs also will be handed out to celebrities and corporate fleets.

Jacqlyn and Ben Lee of Burbank fall into the noncelebrity category. They don’t consider themselves hard-core environmentalists, but volunteering for Project Driveway appealed to their “green” instincts.

“For me, this was a hands-on way to help the environment,” said Jacqlyn, 25, who works in the creative department at Warner Home Video. Fuel-cell technology “is going to be seen on the road and it’s going to get people’s attention.”

Ben, 29, an information technology manager for Walt Disney Co., said he and Jacqlyn were eager to get their hands on an Equinox.

“We haven’t sat down and had a heart-to-heart about who gets the car on what days,” he said. “It may be a matter of whoever grabs the keys first in the morning.”

GM, which has spent more than $1 billion on fuel-cell research, isn’t the first automaker to get a hydrogen-powered vehicle on the road.

Two of Honda Motor Co.'s FCX fuel-cell cars are being driven around L.A. -- one by actress Q’Orianka Kilcher. Toyota Motor Corp. is testing fuel-cell versions of its Highlander SUV in partnership with UC Berkeley and UC Irvine, and 20 are being road-tested by government agencies in Japan.

BMW has been road-testing hydrogen-powered versions of its 7 Series luxury sedan in the L.A. area since this summer, lending the cars to notables such as L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo and Davis Guggenheim, director of the environmental blockbuster “An Inconvenient Truth.” (BMW’s system relies on hydrogen for fuel but uses it to drive an internal combustion engine rather than to power an electricity-generating fuel cell.)

All of this activity doesn’t impress critics who contend that pouring money into fuel-cell research isn’t the fastest way to significantly improve fuel economy or decrease smog and greenhouse gases. Their arguments: The vehicles are too expensive, hydrogen production is inefficient, and building a nationwide network of fueling locations would cost billions.

“Fuel-cell vehicles are always 20 years away,” said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an advocacy group in Palo Alto. “If we’re going to do anything soon to have ultra-low-emissions cars on the road, it won’t be with fuel cells.”

The infrastructure challenge is especially daunting.

There are only about a dozen hydrogen fueling stations in the L.A. area today -- all of them on private property. GM is negotiating to get access to some of those sites for its Project Driveway participants and plans to build fueling stations at six locations locally, including Burbank, Santa Monica, Irvine and Los Angeles International Airport, McCormick said.

GM has estimated that it would cost $12 billion to install hydrogen pumps within a reasonable distance of 70% of the U.S. population. But McCormick said a viable program could be launched with far fewer stations in densely traveled corridors, such as L.A. to the Bay Area and New York to Philadelphia and Boston.

“You don’t need a station in Topeka, Kan.,” he said. As few as 60 fueling sites -- price tag: $1 million each -- would be sufficient to put one within two miles of every driver in the Los Angeles area, GM spokesman Scott Fosgard said.

Still, with hand-built fuel-cell cars costing $1 million a copy, it will be tough to persuade an energy company to invest in even a small string of fueling stations until they’re convinced the cars will be cheap enough to attract a large number of buyers.

“Who is going to buy hydrogen cars until there are a lot of fueling stations, and who’s going to build the fueling stations until they know if the cars are going to be successful?” asked Joe Romm, the author of “The Hype About Hydrogen.”

Despite these concerns, McCormick expects to see GM’s annual production of fuel-cell vehicles “in the low thousands” by early in the next decade and to have them available for lease. He predicts “broad affordability” by 2020, with prices in the $20,000 to $25,000 range in 2007 dollars.

GM also insists that it can develop fuel-cell vehicles while still funding research into other alternative powertrain technologies such as plug-in electric vehicles. “We’re a big company,” Fosgard said. “We can do both.”

Waiting for his Equinox, Ben Lee is fully aware of the controversy surrounding fuel cells. But with oil around $90 a barrel, he said, it’s time for automakers to explore whatever alternatives are out there.

“If nobody is willing to take these kinds of leaps,” he said, “then we’ll be stuck with using petroleum until we run out.”

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com


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