Alternative Fuels: the fuel cell challenge

Only one car made it the entire 230 miles, and we were behind the wheel.

by Photo by: Michael Tweed
THE CHAMP
HydroGen1 is the only fuel cell vehicle that completed the 230-mile endurance challenge.
Photo by: Michael Tweed

Talk about irony. I'm driving one of the world's most environmentally responsible cars into Las Vegas, the world capital of excess.

My ride is the HydroGen1, General Motors' zero-emission fuel-cell-powered development vehicle, and I'm taking it over for the last leg of a 230-mile endurance run dubbed Challenge Bibendum by organizer Michelin. Participating are a host of alternative-fuel vehicles, including nine fuel cell cars.

The route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, with long uphill grades and high temperatures, poses severe challenges to the experimental vehicles. In fact, engineers at DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Toyota, and others decide to tackle only individual segments with their fuel cell cars. GM alone attempts the entire journey. At our single liquid hydrogen refueling stop, I lobby to drive the final leg. The engineers reluctantly agree.

A turn of the ignition key coaxes a muted whine from the back of the Opel Zafira-based prototype. It's the sound of a compressor forcing air into the fuel cell stack in the engine bay. The car is ready to move after 15 seconds. It accelerates slowly, 0 to 50 mph in roughly 18 seconds. But once up to speed the car feels remarkably conventional; the steering is quite crisp and the brakes do a decent job as I weave through traffic.

Thirty miles later, I bring the smoothly running HydroGen1 to a halt at its final destination, the Las Vegas Convention Center. GM now can lay claim to another milestone in the progress of the fuel cell car. And I can breathe a big sigh of relief.