2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Preview
By Chris Haak
GM built a fleet of about 100 fuel cell-powered Equinox crossovers and is allowing “regular people” to use them for a few months at a time to help spread awareness of this developing technology. Honda is actually doing something similar with its Clarity FCX program, except that Honda is leasing the FCX to retail consumers for $600 per month as part of a multi-year lease, while GM is providing the Equinox test vehicles for shorter periods, but at no charge.
The Equinox Fuel Cell really contains an impressive amount of technology, though still costly at this point for mainstream vehicles. The engineers that I spoke to were very enthusiastic about their work on the project, and said that the biggest obstacle is not even cost, but a lack of infrastructure; the fuel cell Equinox requires a hydrogen fill-up every few hundred miles, and there are far fewer hydrogen filling stations than there are E85 stations in the US, and E85 is hard enough to find outside of the Midwest. For the reasons of this infrastructure constraint, the Equinox can only be loaned in the Los Angeles, DC, and New York metro areas. Fortunately for us at Autosavant, the industry event that we attended last week was close enough to the New York area that GM was able to bring along two Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles for journalists to sample on supervised test drives on public roads.
The program that GM has created to put this large-scale fleet of test vehicles into the hands of the public is called Project Driveway. Individuals who live in the aforementioned geographic areas and who have interest in possibly testing an Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle can log onto the survey website at this link.
I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer, so I can’t go into a ton of detail about exactly how the vehicle works, but I do have a fundamental understanding of the process. Basically, the vehicle’s hydrogen is stored in a high-pressure tank that holds enough H2 to travel 150 miles between fillups. Within the fuel cell (which resides under the vehicle’s hood, shrouded in plastic), the fuel cell generates electricity that powers the drive motor and/or charges storage batteries. The drive system in the Equinox is electric, and as such, has the inherent torque benefits of an electric vehicle (immediate peak torque from just above 0 RPMs) with the relatively low horsepower figures as well.
In my supervised drive, which lasted about 25 minutes, my chaperone handed me the key (which is just a standard GM key) and asked me to start the Equinox. I put it into the ignition module and turned it past the start spring, then released. He told me that he was impressed that I didn’t keep it engaged, since there’s no cranking sensation as part of the startup routine. It really wasn’t anything more impressive on my part than being used to our own vehicles (and many other new ones) that require only a brief trip to the start area of the ignition key’s travel, while the engine will continue cranking until it starts. Upon “starting up” the vehicle, there isn’t much sound or vibration, just a few mechanical-type sounds that occur as the vehicle’s systems boot up and do their diagnostic checks.
I dropped it into gear and headed out. I say “gear” not only in reference to first gear, but because – like the Tesla Roadster – there isonly one forward gear. That gear is high gear, low gear, and every gear in between. The torque of the electric motor makes any additional gears unnecessary; in fact, the motor’s torque is reduced via software from what its peak would otherwise be simply to keep the vehicle easier to drive and to manage wear on drivetrain components.
I wouldn’t call the Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle quick, but it’s also not a sloth. From the seat of my pants, it felt like it probably had a 0-60 time similar to a four cylinder Saturn Vue, although at higher speeds (such as a quarter mile from a standing start, or passing on the highway), even the four-banger Vue could probably trounce it thanks to the Fuel Cell vehicle’s lower horsepower rating. There were a few unusual sounds emanating from the engine compartment and beneath the vehicle, but many of them are obvious only because there is no engine sound and only the faint whir of the electric motor. Steering feel was somewhat detached because it’s an electric power steering system, but it’s no worse than the EPS in a Cobalt LT, for example. The biggest complement I could pay to the Equinox Fuel Cell is that after a few minutes on the road, I would get wrapped up in conversation with the engineer who was riding with me and forget that I was driving a 100-of-a-kind prototype vehicle, powered by the same fuel that doomed the Hindenburg, and was emitting nothing more than water vapor from the tailpipe.
Considering how far fuel cell development has moved in the past decade, and the impetus to reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil, I am now actually more optimistic about the future of the automobile than I was a week ago. If the Equniox Fuel Cell was a decent driving experience, I’m sure that as fuel cells shrink in size and cost, and the technology improves to the point where they can equal or surpass the performance of an internal combustion engine under all conditions, things won’t be too awful after all. That is, after they solve that pesky hydrogen infrastructure problem, which won’t be easy, because each state – and sometimes each municipality – regulates hydrogen differently.
We at Autosavant are working to get our hands on an Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle for an extended test. If we do so, we’ll share what it’s like to live with it for a week (or however long we get it for), not just for a half hour. (Are you listening, GM?)
For more information on how fuel cells work, click here to go to an animation and explanation presented by the US Department of Energy.
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