Road rally hawks hydrogen cars

Major carmakers showcase prototypes of fuel cell cars, promoting benefits such as reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
2 min read
BERKELEY, Calif.--No more oil changes. No more pricey gas. No more trips to the service station.

That is, unless your car needs its fuel-cell stack adjusted.

Most drivers would call this crazy talk, but it's the sales pitch for hydrogen-powered cars coming from big carmakers such as General Motors, Honda, Volkswagen, Toyota and Nissan. From Thursday to Saturday, the companies are driving $1 million-plus prototypes of fuel cell cars, or the "car of the future" as they call it, throughout Northern California, promoting the benefits of fuel cell technology, which, among other things, if widely adopted would remove U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

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"The future of transportation is from electric, not combustion. The advantage of that is you get rid of all your shock complaints, throttle response complaints, et cetera. All the manufacturers are betting on some alternative to foreign oil," according to a representative from Nissan's fuel cell technology team.

The media and public were invited here Thursday to the Golden Gate Fields to test-drive 20 hydrogen-powered vehicles ranging from a small Honda SUV to a military-grade General Motors truck. And according to representatives of the California Fuel Cell Partnership's 2005 Road Rally, the 20 cars comprised roughly a third of all such vehicles in existence in the state.

But if California lawmakers and carmakers have their way, the efficient, clean-running autos will rival oil-powered vehicles by 2010. The California Hydrogen Highway, backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, proposes that 50 to 100 fueling stations be built in the state by that time.

The goal of this week's fourth-annual rally: to warm the public up to the idea.

"We believe the long-term future is going to be hydrogen. And this kind of vehicle will do to today's cars and trucks what today's cars and trucks did to the horse and buggy of 150 years ago," said Dave Barthmuss, manager of GM's public policy, referring to the company's "Hydrogen 3" minivan on display.

All of the cars being showcased in the rally use hydrogen, with fuel cells that bind oxygen and hydrogen to create an electrical current that powers the motor. The natural byproduct emitted from the tailpipe is water. The process reduces local air pollution and reduces reliance on a depleting natural resource, oil. However, the factories that produce the hydrogen emit carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. As a result, some researchers have proposed powering future vehicles with solar panels.

GM's "Hydrogen 3," a compact minivan that seats five, operates on liquid and compressed hydrogen. It can store the hydrogen at up to 10,000 PSI; and at that pressure, it is a liquid that can power the vehicle for 250 miles.

In April, the U.S. military began testing GM's modified fuel-cell Chevrolet Silverado, which can generate 188 kilowatts and 317 foot-pounds of torque, about the same motor torque generated by GM's 5.3 liter V-8 engine.