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Oct 222008
 

By Clint Williams

Jennifer Drukker expected people would stare at her new car. What she didn’t expect was this: “I was at the first stop light after I’d driven off with the car. It was literally the first time I came to a stop after driving off with the car,” she recalls. “The driver of the car next to me rolls down the windows and starts shouting questions.”

If it seems an extreme response to a Chevrolet Equinox, a fairly mainstream SUV, consider that the paint job includes the word “fuel cell” on the sides.

Fuel cell vehicles that turn abundant hydrogen into electricity are one promising alternative to gasoline-burning, toxic-fume-spewing internal-combustion engines. Widespread availability of such cars – which emit water vapor instead of greenhouse gases and stuff that’s flat out unhealthy – is years in the future.

But for Jennifer Drukker, Jamie Lee Curtis (yes, that one) and a handful of other drivers, the future is now.

General Motors has 100 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell SUVs on the highways as part of “Project Driveway,” an extended research program that puts regular drivers behind the wheel of these costly cars for a few months.

Honda this summer began delivery of the FCX Clarity through a special leasing program expected to put another 200 fuel cell cars on the road over the next three years.

When you boil it down, fuel cell vehicles (FCV, for short) are electric cars. The juice comes from that single-proton gas once used to make zeppelins float. Hydrogen and oxygen are used in a chemical reaction that creates electricity. Think of it as the flip side to the electrolysis experiment you did in high school.

“We’re using hydrogen to store electricity,” says Mark Vann of General Motors.

For drivers, that means an electric car with the range of a conventional automobile. The range of the Equinox FCV is 160-200 miles between fill-ups. The Honda FCX goes about 270 miles.

Hydrogen as a fuel offers several advantages over gasoline. When used in fuel cells, the byproduct is water. It’s abundant. Industrial volumes of hydrogen are produced from natural gas and used to refine petroleum. Enough hydrogen is now produced globally each year to replace 56 billion gallons of gasoline, according to the National Hydrogen Association.

And hydrogen is a fairly cheap fuel. “The cost of operating the fuel cell Equinox is equivalent to getting 40 miles per gallon and paying $2.50 a gallon for gas,” say Vann.

The high amount of torque an electric motor offers compared to an internal-combustion engine means even an SUV like the Equinox is delightfully quick off the line.

“It goes faster than you legally need to go,” says Gates Clark, another Project Driveway participant. “There are no performance compromises.”

Quick and quiet. Low impact and low operating costs. Why can’t I have one now?