GM pushes the pedal on hydrogen fuel-cell power

General Motors gm says it hopes to begin pumping hundreds of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles a year into ordinary buyers' hands through GM dealerships beginning in 2011.

Though small numbers by auto-industry standards, it's the most ambitious public plan yet to bring pollution-free fuel-cell vehicles into the mainstream.

Perhaps more important, GM is "working as hard and fast as we can for competitive reasons," rather than as pure research on a promising technology, says Larry Burns, GM vice president in charge of research and development.

"I'm paranoid enough to conclude (rivals) are running on the same timeline we are," he says, citing fuel-cell research at Mercedes-Benz, Honda hmc and others.

In other words, a race is on, and that always speeds development.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles produce water vapor as exhaust, not the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, nor other objectionable emissions. And they go twice as far as gasoline vehicles on the same amount of energy.

Until now, Honda has been the fuel-cell champion. CEO Takeo Fukui said in Japan late last month that Honda will put up to 100 of its 2008 FCX regular-production fuel-cell sedans into U.S. customers' hands next year, probably via two- or three-year leases.

Hyundai has promised to mass-produce fuel-cell vehicles as soon as 2012, no later than 2015.

Burns says 2011 is as soon as GM could deliver. Problems during remaining development could delay that, as could the failure of energy companies to build the expected additional hydrogen stations in the Los Angeles area, where the first regular-production hydrogen vehicles are likely to be launched.

In the interim, GM is handing over 100 Chevrolet Equinox SUVs, modified to run on fuel cells instead of gasoline engines, to regular drivers for three months at a time the next three years to collect data.

As envisioned, the GM fuel cell will be a hydrogen version of the Chevrolet Volt electric car. Volt, unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, is a battery-power car that can be recharged by plugging into a normal electric outlet or by a small gasoline engine in the car.

In the hydrogen versions, fuel cells would replace batteries, combining hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction that produces electricity.

GM promised the United Auto Workers, as part of a labor deal signed in September, that it would start manufacturing Volt in 2010.

The fuel-cell Volt, expected about a year later, probably would be leased. Fuel-cell technology is expensive, and the cars can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. Piggybacking onto Volt will cut that somewhat, says Daniel O'Connell, director of a GM unit that services and supports fuel-cell vehicles.

The government says it's possible to eventually produce hydrogen at a cost equal to $1 to $1.50 a gallon for gasoline. GM foresees the equivalent of $2 to $3 a gallon in the short term.

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