Driving Cars of the Future

June 12, 2007

This is part 2 of my series of posts about visiting GM Headquarters in Detroit for the ChallengeX program and to meet with some GM executives. I attended this event representing both GreenOptions.com and EcoGeek.org, and these articles are cross-posted to both sites. Previous story here.

Several of the vehicles were available to be driven at the ChallengeX event. Of the vehicles that were there, I was most interested in driving the University of Waterloo's entry. Most of the teams (12 of the 17 competitors) were using a B20 biodiesel blend as their fuel and all but one of the others used some form of internal combustion with E85 ethanol or reformulated gasoline. But the University of Waterloo team took a different approach.

The Waterloo vehicle was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell (with onboard batteries for backup) and propelled by front and rear electric motors. When I sat down behind the wheel, my guide from the Waterloo team explained that some of the things in the vehicle that are different from the way we're used to driving a car. There were a number of different sounds, coming from the front and the rear, as various systems came online to start the fuel cell system in operation. Matt Stevens from the Waterloo team explained the whole sequence of operation to me this way:

  • when you first crank the key, there's no actual sounds as the no engine rank is required (or possible!)
  • when the key returns to on from the crank position, first is a relay clicking meaning the battery is connected and the vehicle is ready to drive. Meanwhile the fuel cells are starting up:
  • begins with a quiet hiss as the stacks are filling up with up with hydrogen,
  • next the recirculation pumps kick on, making a low hum and a very slight vibration,
  • last is the air delivery blower kicking up to pump air into the stacks,
  • and voila, 65kW of fuel cell stacks ready to deliver power. Process takes about 10 seconds, but the car is ready to drive on battery power as soon as the first click is heard and the car is put into drive.

Image Credit: University of WaterlooI'm not a test driver. And even if I was, this was just a trip around the block of GM's Renaissance Center headquarters, so it was just four right turns and a couple of stops. I wasn't doing any hard maneuvering or acceleration testing, or anything else rigorous like that. Those tests had been conducted during the preceeding week at GM's proving grounds. Still, I think it was a unique opportunity to have the chance to drive a fuel cell vehicle. I may not ever have one in my driveway, but I've had the chance to drive one.

While the sounds were different from what you are likely used to with an internal combustion engine, the vehicle drove no differently than any other vehicle. It responded to the accelerator in the same way as any other vehicle, and it had reasonable pickup (even with four people in the car) and performed very comfortably. If they'd left the radio in and played it during the drive, it might not have been noticable that there was any difference at all.

I'm still uncertain about the ready availability of hydrogen, and the infrastructure to distribute it. But it's quite a thrill to drive something like this, even if it never makes it into mass-scale production. Hydrogen fuel cell power does have its uses, even if we don't see it become a mainstream automotive fuel. And, though hydrogen may be difficult to deploy across North America or Europe, it may be easier to bring it to other parts of the world, where the current fuel infrastructure is much more limited, and there is less commitment to gasoline and related fuels. So, although it's farther out there than the other entries, the design and engineering in this project are worthwhile. And even if we don't have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in our driveways, we're likely to find some specialty applications using hydrogen as part of a comprehensive power scheme in the future. In any case, the engineering efforts of this team (and others) will be put to good use.