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GM clings to hydrogen, 2015 set for launch

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With gas prices holding steady and GM desperate for cash, one might assume the bankrupt company  would kill its hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) program ...

With gas prices holding steady and GM desperate for cash, one might assume the bankrupt company  would kill its hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) program oddly-named Project Driveway. The program backed out of the driveway in 2006 and includes adapting more than 100 Chevy Equinox SUVs to run on hydrogen, arranging for fueling facilities and getting people to drive the vehicles to gauge their opinions.

A source close to the program which I wrote about extensively last May when I took an HFC Equinox for a  morning outside New York City says it's actually been expanded.

"The program for all intents and purposes is tracking forward,"  the veteran GMer said. GM was shut down this week so reaching a media person for official comment was not in the cards. But top GM R&D honcho Larry Burns said recently that the company remains committed to bringing hydrogen vehicle to market by 2015. Toyota, Honda, Daimler and Ford have more or less said the same thing, but auto execs have acknowledged that recent cuts in federal funding into hydrogen will slow commercialization.

The timeframe also gives them six years to change their minds. Fair to say Honda and GM are the most committed at this point.

A few years ago, GM was saying hydrogen was THE future, not batteries charged from an outlet or a small internally-combusted engine. No doubt, hybrids and battery-centric vehicles are far ahead of hydrogen. Batteries in GM's Equinox play a secondary role.

I loved the powerful HFC Equinox, but when times were more conducive to a gasoline alternative a year ago, hydrogen still had plenty of critics. I like the technology, but it's hard to deny the economic challenges.

GM has adapted more than 100 Chevy Equinoxes to run on hydrogen.

Hydrogen is expensive to produce and distribute. You'll get a lot of push back on that from industrial gas companies like Air Products, the world's largest producer of hydrogen, but building out the refueling infrastructure will take years if it ever actually happens. Frankly, the oil industry has shown little interest in it with the exception of Shell and Chevron. Oil giant Exxon Mobil has rejected the idea outright. Home electrolyzers you may have heard about to produce hydrogen are way off if at all feasible commercially.

Hydrogen production also requires vast amounts of water and electricity which, pun intended, waters down the zero emission claim. That disenchants the tree huggers.

My source says the GM program has added southeastern Michigan to refueling sites in addition to LA, Washington and Ardsley, NY just outside NYC. GM's hydrogen program has been expanded to China, Korea and Germany. For two years, GM has been trying to launch the program in Japan, but the vehicles have been prevented from entering country by bureaucratic red tape, the source said, adding that the GM effort in China might use something other than an Equinox.

GM may have miscalculated with its no-compromise philosophy (cost to build each experimental Equinox was $250,000 or 10x the gas version). In that vein, the Equinox is spacious, comfortable and very powerful. Sounds like a GM car, doesn't it?

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure