By Barbara Kessler

It’s hard not to be in a panic about something these days, whether it’s global warming or financial meltdown.

Which is why I found it reassuring to see some of the new green cars in various stages of development at a General Motors “Ride and Drive” at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth yesterday. The array was impressive: hybrid trucks (for people who can’t give ‘em up); compacts with econo prices and above 30 mpg ratings; flex fuel cars that may be increasingly viable as the price of ethanol beats gasoline, and a couple hydrogen fuel cell test vehicles.

Naturally, the Chevy Volt, GM’s darling plug-in electric newborn, was prominently on display. The production version of the car was just “revealed” last week in Detroit, and its Dallas-Fort Worth viewing (overseen by a GM dude specifically charged with making sure no one kicks too hard at the tires of the handmade show vehicle) was the first stop on a long U.S. road show.

Parent GM is proud of the Volt, which it hopes will help reshape its entire public image, letting Americans know it ain’t just a big truck company. And if the fairy tale proceeds as planned, the four-seater Volt will kick butt in the electric car category with GM’s proprietary lithium-ion battery, though that butt-kicking will have to wait until the end of 2010, when GM says the Volt should be available for sale. (At what price, they’re not saying.)

So far, people are liking the way it looks, according to the GM experts on hand. I thought it looked decidedly racier than my aging family van.

You can get a more expert opinion on the styling, marketing and abilities of the Volt next week when Clint Williams, a discerning and experienced auto writer who’s agreed to keep us up to speed on such things here at GreenRightNow, will be downloading his views on this probable auto icon.

I decided to test drive a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, a retrofitted Equinox because, hey, you can’t do it every day (unless you’re an official GM test driver like Jay Leno). And these vehicles, once they’re ready for prime time (maybe late 2010), will be ZERO emissions people movers — the green transportation equivalent of a wind- or solar-powered home.

I don’t pretend to understand everything about the technology but crudely speaking, the key lies with a contained box in which a chemical reaction (electrolysis if you must know) produces hydrogen which is used to create electricity that powers the vehicle.

The only output is that the car exhales water vapor.

There are several issues that need to be worked out around hydrogen fuel cell cars and trucks. They use another limited natural resource, water, though they don’t guzzle it quite like gas engines burn through gasoline. Our GM guide, Alain Guiboux, said the company is aggressively pursuing other methods of making hydrogen which is our most abundant natural element, such as using cellulosic biomass (a fancy name for old corn stalks and organic waste). So remain hopeful on that front.

There are technical issues still being hammered out: The power units weigh a lot, though they’re getting smaller; the cars cost a lot to produce (a no brainer considering this is a new tech) and — shhhh! — hydrolysis is expensive.

And they need refueling.

Refueling turns out to be a vexing matter. We’ve got thousands of gas stations, but only a handful of hydrogen fueling stations in the United States, fewer than 100 in fact, according to the National Hydrogen Association.  A few entrepreneurs are stepping into that market, but thousands more stations would have to be built or created from converted gas stations, and who’s promising clients? A topic for another day.

Oh, the ride? It was so smooth, it was as if something was missing. It was. With no gas combustion engine needing help to fire through shifting speeds, that little hitch you feel from the transmission is a thing of the past.

Copyright © 2008 | Distributed by Noofangle Media

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