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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chevy Equinox Hydrogen

Not an hour after my chat with Tom Williams, another driver of a 2008 Chevrolet Equinox FCEV as part of GM Project Driveway, he leaves a message on my cell phone:

"When I drove up to downtown L.A. from Orange County today, I got 60 miles to the kilogram. I don't know about you, but I love that."

It's the kind of excitement I'm used to hearing from truly motivated Prius owners. By any standard, the hydrogen-fueled Chevy Equinox fuel cell electric vehicle qualifies as alternative-fuel exotica, as rare and fascinating as it is expensive and impractical.

You can call it the 2008 Chevrolet Equinox FCEV (FCEV as in fuel cell electric vehicle), but this is no production vehicle. Only General Motors knows what it costs to build these SUVs, but each of these prototypes is probably worth the equivalent of 10 Tesla Roadsters.

For the next 72 hours, though, I'm going to drive our Chevrolet Equinox FCEV test vehicle like it's an ordinary, $30,000 Chevy Equinox LTZ. Of course, the FCEV's 150-mile range prevents me from leaving the green dreamland of Southern California. A Chevrolet dealership will probably never be more than five miles away, and specially trained OnStar advisors are waiting to take my call.

As a participant in the hydrogen-powered GM Project Driveway, I even have my own Driver Relationship Manager. She tells me I can call her cell any time, day or night. Not even my mom wants to talk to me that often.

Free Lunch, but It's Lowfat
Every time I fill up at the Shell station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Federal Avenue in West Los Angeles, I enter a special PIN that automatically debits a GM corporate account at $5 per kilogram. This isn't the market rate for compressed hydrogen. Rather, it's a fixed price agreed upon by Shell and the auto manufacturers that patronize the pump, and subsidized by Uncle Sam.

One wrinkle is that Shell's pump only dispenses hydrogen at 350 bar or 5,000 psi. This isn't surprising, as most hydrogen retailers certify civilians like me to pump only at this pressure level. If you score a Honda FCX Clarity, it's a nonissue as the Honda stores its hydrogen at 350 bar.

But the 2008 Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell stores 4.2 kilograms of the stuff at a denser 700 bar (10,000 psi). A 350-bar pump and the three carbon-fiber tanks of the Equinox can work out their differences, but for reasons of physics, you'll never come away with more than half a tank. Also for reasons of physics, you can't refuel the Equinox FCEV at one of these stations until its fuel gauge reads below the halfway mark.

So now I'm looking at 75 miles of real-world range.

It's Like Driving a Hybrid, Only Not
As of Saturday morning, our Equinox is fresh off a 700-bar refueling session, and I have seven-eighths of a tank.

At Santa Monica's farmer's market on Arizona Avenue, this hydrogen-fueled SUV receives exactly zero attention. It's like they don't even hear the robotic snorting, grunting and, yes, farting as the Equinox FCEV goes through its meticulous shutdown process. It's like they don't even see its whimsical water-molecule decals.

Raul, my favorite tomato farmer, owns a Toyota Camry Hybrid and a first-gen Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

"It's like driving your Camry Hybrid if it never went out of electric mode," I tell him.

"So it's normal," he says.

"But it's kind of weird to be driving around and realize you don't have an engine under the hood," I insist.

"Yeah, that's how we're programmed," he replies. He sighs. Guess there won't be any deals on the heirloom tomatoes this week.

Up to Speed
I point the fuel cell Equinox toward the Los Angeles Coliseum, the final stop on the Hydrogen Road Tour, organized by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Department of Energy, along with the California Fuel Cell Partnership and the National Hydrogen Association. I should meet some of my hydrogen-crazed peeps there.

Accelerating up to a 75-mph pace on the freeway is easier than you'd expect in a 4,357-pound SUV that has no explosions going on under its hood. The fuel cell Equinox definitely isn't slow, unlike the early hybrids. In our instrumented tests, it hits 60 mph in a respectable 9.6 seconds (or 9.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and goes through the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds at 79 mph.

At the same time, the front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell doesn't move off the line very aggressively, considering all the torque that should be instantaneously available from its electric motor, which is rated at 236 pound-feet of torque (along with 126 horsepower).

Ben Lee, owner of a 1996 Chevy Impala SS and a 2008 Pontiac G8 GT, is another driver in temporary custody of an Equinox FCEV. "When we first got the fuel cell Equinox," he says, "it was almost 100 percent torque. But GM retuned it to feel more like a normal car. Every time we would take it into GM's Burbank training center, they would update the programming — braking, steering and drivetrain.

"A Sport mode option would be an awesome upgrade for the future," Lee adds. "If there were a switch that allowed you to choose to use more hydrogen if you wanted to, that would be great."

The Wheels Go Round and Round
Above 40 mph, the whirring and chirping of the compressor forcing hydrogen into the fuel cell stack fades into the background. But maybe it's only because there's now enough road noise to fool my ears.

Otherwise, the drive reminds me of commuting in a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The ride is composed and well-isolated from the bumps, though expansion joints can be jarring, with much suspension thwack invading the cabin. The steering uses electric assist and has the same 19.4:1 ratio as an Equinox LTZ. There's not much feedback from the tires, but the wheel feels secure in my hands at 85 mph.

Instead of a transmission, the 2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell has a single reduction gear that syncs up the electric motor with the front wheels. Shift from "D" and "L" and you won't get a different gear ratio, merely a change in the vehicle's regenerative braking characteristics.

All of the Equinox FCEV drivers I meet comment on the smooth, effortless feel of the SUV's power delivery, uninterrupted as it is by conventional shift points. "It feels almost like you're driving a supercharged golf cart," Jackie Lee, wife of Ben, tells me.

Not Athletic, but Not Bad
On the way home, I drive through the Hollywood Hills. This 4,357-pound electric vehicle is not exactly athletic, but its manners are fairly refined. If its P225/60R17 Goodyear Integrity tires offered anything resembling grip, its handling would be pretty good. As it is, the hydrogen Chevy's 60.4-mph speed through our slalom and 0.71g performance on the skid pad are average for an SUV in this weight class.

The Equinox Fuel Cell's 134-foot 60-0 braking distance isn't bad either, but even in normal traffic, I can tell it would stop a lot better with tires that aspired to more than low rolling resistance.

That said, the regenerative braking system used to recharge the Equinox's supplemental nickel-metal hydride battery pack is a bigger annoyance. There's an abrupt change in pedal feel when regen mode activates. Under harder braking, there's a low-tech thunk from the back of this million-dollar SUV prototype.

High Anxiety
Then I realize I've got something bigger to worry about. I roll up to Shell's hydrogen pump with 25 miles left on the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell's distance-to-empty counter. I enter the PIN and get a warning that says, "Hose leak detected." The upshot is I can't refuel here. What to do?

I drive home and plot out a route to GM's Burbank training center. It's only 23 miles away, but the Equinox tells me that it has only 23 miles to go before the tank is empty.

"Do you think I'll make it?" I ask my Driver Relationship Manager. "Yes" is the answer but I hear doubt in her voice. She offers a tow if I want it, but I decide to see this through. If I succeed, I will declare hydrogen the greatest fuel on earth.

Traffic is light. Once the Equinox slips below 15 miles of range, the trip computer switches to a message that reads, "Range Low." But I'm too stubborn to turn back. Besides, this is a tad thrilling.

Just as I'm pulling into GM's driveway, the display changes to "Propulsion Power is Reduced." This means the hydrogen fuel cell stack is no longer powering the electric motor, and all juice is coming from the battery pack. It's like a limp-home mode.

An hour of very slow 700-bar refueling ensues. This is what happens when you run the tanks completely dry, the engineers tell me. But the stressful commute apparently drained some other life force from the Equinox because its fuel cell stack won't reboot.

An identical Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell is pulled from the stock of perhaps 25 prototypes in the parking lot. It's my ride home.

Will Hydrogen Change Your Life?
During our test of the two examples of the 2008 Chevrolet Equinox FCEV, Shell's hydrogen pump lets us down a half-dozen times. One evening when the pump is working, I wait in line as a Honda FCX Clarity lessee refuels. His car has more range than the fuel cell Equinox, but he's as frustrated as I am. "This station was down for three weeks when I first got the car," he says.

I wonder, then, if the real significance of the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell lies not in its exotic propulsion system, but in its image of environmental sustainability.

Few of the Project Driveway participants, for example, are ready to rush out and buy a new hybrid. "My Mazda 6 and Saturn Vue both have about 40,000 miles on them," says project participant Neil Smith, "and I can get another seven years with those cars, and when GM's fuel cell vehicle comes on the market, I will buy one. I won't dump my current cars, because that doesn't make economic sense."

The Lees started carpooling to work during their three-month Equinox FCEV loan just so they could both experience the vehicle. Yet the loan ended four months ago, and they're still doing it. "This vehicle made us greener without even trying," Ben Lee says.