In this market, Honda and Toyota have long been the front runners, raking in a tidy profit with the fuel sipping Civc Hybrid and Toyota Prius, both of which squeeze 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas.
But while the Japanese spent the last decade focused on maximizing fuel efficiency through investment in gasoline-electric hybrids, General Motors doubled down on the SUV market. GM made millions in an era of cheap gas by selling tarted-up trucks which on average weighed nearly two tons and returned single-digit gas mileage.
With the SUV market now nearly obliterated by oil trading at $130 per barrel, General Motors has regrouped, aggressively publicizing their own fuel efficient and ecologically conscious products.
The figurehead in this new campaign is the fuel cell powered Chevrolet Equinox.
Dave Barthmuss, GM regional group manager of environment & energy communications, sees the hydrogen powered trucklet as an example of how to move away from oil altogether. "As a nation we are 98 percent dependent on oil as an energy source. It is a finite resource. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is an option that we feel is part of the future."
A small SUV comparable in size to the Honda CRV, the fuel cell Equinox drops the current model's six-cylinder engine in favor of an electric motor and an automatic transmission that continually selects the best gear ratio for either acceleration or economy.
But rather than use batteries to store electricity, the fuel cell Equinox uses pressurized hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen in the on-board fuel cell to create power for the motor as it is needed. To extend the vehicles range, a small battery pack is also carried on board to store energy captured from the vehicle's regenerative braking system.
Electric motors produce maximum torque at idle; the first sensation when driving the diminutive SUV is one of instant power and eager acceleration. During my time cutting a swath through typical Valley traffic, the Equinox responded to a squeeze of the "gas" pedal with zeal, making merging and overtaking effortless.
At first, the regenerative braking was sensitive, requiring a deft touch to brake smoothly. Regenerative braking works by using the electric motor as a generator, creating electrical currents that charge the batteries and slow the car by creating resistance within the motor itself. And as the motor slows, so does the rest of the car.
After a few blocks of stop-and-go driving the learning curve leveled off. It was actually fun to anticipate the next red light and try to save the most energy, watching the power meter (which replaced the gas-powered model's tachometer) spin backwards as the regenerative braking kicked in. In a panic stop triggered by an trailer-towing twit, the regular hydraulic brakes stopped the SUV with alacrity.
In nearly every respect, the fuel cell Equinox proved to be a very refined vehicle that is as practical as its gasoline-powered counterpart. At highway speed, the only sound was a faint whine from the electric motor and the wind rustling past the windows. The rear hatch wasn't cluttered by batteries or hydrogen tanks befitting a zeppelin. The rear seats still folded, just as on the regular model. You could very easily take this trucklet on the supermarket run or wherever else the urban SUV still roams.
Which is precisely the point GM is trying to prove.
The Chevrolet division of General Motors will be offering 100 examples to selected members of the public as a part of Project Driveway, their first long term public road test of fuel cell technology.
Participants will be chosen based on their driving habits and their proximity to one of three hydrogen refueling stations operated by GM in Los Angeles County. Those selected to drive the Equinox will get to use it completely free of charge for three months at a time and report their experiences back to Chevrolet. Motorists in Washington D.C. and New York City will also participate in the program.
"Drivers will provide regular, candid feedback about their use of the vehicle in their daily lives, the vehicle's performance and their personal preferences," said Ed Peper, general manager of the Chevrolet division, in a public announcement introducing the program. "[Their feedback] is key in defining our product and introduction plans for fuel cell vehicles."
Yet before the program begins, driving range will be the critical issue. When fully fueled with nine pounds of hydrogen, the fuel cell Equinox can be driven about 150 miles. This is fine for the inter-city commute and in traditional gasoline mileage figures, this equals roughly 35 miles per gallon — a remarkable feat given the size of the vehicle.
The lack of hydrogen fueling stations remains the major roadblock toward delivering an otherwise road ready product.
Barthmuss recognizes this hurdle and sees "Project Driveway" as a way to stimulate investment in fueling stations. "Our goal is to have a fuel cell program ready by 2010 and we are confident that we can meet that goal. We don't see any engineering standpoint. The only roadblock is infrastructure."
Note: A version of this article was published in the Daily Sundial on June 30, 2008. Reprinted with permission. - DM.