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GM Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicle: From Concept to Market

Published Oct 19th 2007, 5:30pm by

Equinox_fcevI am filing this after a day at the GM Equinox Fuel Cell media outreach event -- "Electric Drive University". After having read Sherry Boschert's "Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America" and watched "Who Killed the Electric Car?" (2006) by Martin Sheen, I was really curious to hear directly from GM its side of the story.

The event showcased the GM Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell all-electric vehicle and provided an intensively satisfying series of lectures on Project Driveway (the largest market-test for a FCEV), safety, fueling, technical principles, and highlights of GM's strategy (from gasoline-powered to gas-friendly to gas-free). It was my first ever chance of driving an all-electric FCEV. However, I was most curious about to market path, especially after listening to Ira Flatow's NPR show "Green Cars on Display, But Will They Hit the Road" -- a fairly contentious discussion featuring Elizabeth Lowery (GM VP Environment & Energy), Sherry Boschert, and an Engineering Editor at Road and Track.

Today's car economy, especially in the U.S., is built on gasoline cars, gasoline stations, and internal combustion parts' service providers. We know how to deal with good 'ole polluting gasoline guzzlers. In economics terms, this is path-dependency -- i.e. "history matters" in making subsequent economic decisions. Adopting a completely new set of technology -- e.g. electric vehicle -- requires major shifts in established industries -- from labor, R&D, assembly line, supply chain, to refueling capabilities.

What I learned from GM is that they believe the following may need to happen for the FCEV to be commercially viable (i.e. available in the market).
Currently, the vehicle is undergoing market test only, and no production schedule has been announced. Most of these info are from a question posted to Byron McCormick, Executive Director/GM Global Fuel Cell Activities, as well as discussions throughout the event with numerous GM reps.

• Partnership amongst car industry (e.g. GM), fueling providers, and government is necessary to create a critical mass of refueling infrastructure. Currently it could take 4 years just to obtain permits to put in a new H-refueling station. Germany, for example, is working on reducing this lead-time.
• GM admits it can't do it alone. Hence it is a good thing many automobile manufacturers are working on fuel-cell vehicles at the same time. The cross-pollination of ideas amongst researchers and management facilitates problem solving which shortens the path to market.
• Technical challenges are not so much an issue today, but there are still many little things that will require more cycles of iterations before an FCEV is market-ready.
• Partnership with government is critical, to revise/develop codes and standards, and develop favorable tax structure to producers and consumers to adopt hydrogen FCEV.
• FCEV needs to be cost-competitive with existing options, since majority of consumers will not vote with their wallet when it comes to green options. Hence, GM needs to produce at a cost-competitive price.
• High-volume productions for hydrogen and membrane manufacturing will lower cost enough, because of economy of scale. One way this could be helped along is by providing tax incentives to increase ROI for early players in these arenas.
• Since hydrogen FCEV requires refueling infrastructure and fairly intensive educational outreach to both consumers and the local emergency first responders, GM is starting from a regional strategy (LA, NY, Washington DC) in testing FCEV markets, and then expanding along contiguous corridors.
• GM needs to know that consumers want EV, what they want in such cars, and enough consumer awareness in order to have enough demand to justify large-scale production. Hence its Project Driveway initiative.

Overall, my sense is that GM seems to have a well-organized program to bring this technology to market, although they have not announced a production schedule (which is a thorn to skeptics out there).
The fuel cell, like any other technology, has its pros and cons, but overall, it does seem like a viable component of motor vehicle energy diversity. GM has spent some real money (upward of $1B although actual figure is undisclosed) -- on R&D, safety testing, marketing/promotion, training, and consumer awareness. However, the final proof will be when the consumer can actually buy electric vehicles from GM dealers. Wouldn't it be great if there comes a day when Americans can buy affordable American-designed, American-made EVs anytime, anywhere?

Extrazoom Marn-Yee Lee
Contributing Editor
AskPatty.com

Marn-Yee Lee is pursuing an MBA in Sustainability at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. After spending a decade in I.T. and on Wall Street, she is now pursuing her passion for the environment. She sees business as a partner for creating innovative solutions to pressing environmental issues. In her spare time, she writes a blog to inspire others to consider the impact of their daily lives on the environment at busythinking.blogspot.com.

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