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What’s it Like to Drive a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle?

September 21, 2009

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On Sept. 11 General Motor's fleet of Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles completed 1 million miles of testing as part of the largest consumer fuel cell demonstration in the world, dubbed Project Driveway.

Read the press release here.

Ben Lee and his wife Jackie of Burbank, Calif. were two of the first Project Driveway participants selected. Lee, an IT manager at Disney Studios, says he was selected after participating in forum chats and surveys for about five months.

Lee shares firsthand what it was like to drive a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for three months in this vanguard experiment.

Ben and Jackie Lee of GM's Project Driveway, testers of General Motor's Chevy Equinox hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle.

Start Up

"You turn a key like a normal Equinox, and you hear all the bells and dinging noises of a normal car starting up. You also hear some fans kicking in, which help cool the motor and help provide the fuel stack with the oxygen it needs. It's like when you turn on your computer and the fans whir and go quiet."

Drive/Handling

"It drives like other electric vehicles. When we first got the car, it drove a lot like a golf cart-you step on the gas and all of a sudden you're moving at top speed right away because of the torque of the electric motor. In order to make the experience a little more user friendly, [GM engineers] rewrote the software to slow the acceleration early on, more like a normal car.

I drive fast cars. [Lee owns a Pontiac G8 GT and a 96 Impala with a 'tricked-out motor.']  I like power. When I'm on the freeway and I'm going 70 mph and I need to pass somebody, I do not want to have to wait.

In the fuel cell Equinox, when you're going 60 mph and you press the gas, the car responds. It's right there for you. Considering that it's got the equivalent of something like 120 horsepower [94kW peak output, or 126 hp], it feels like a lot more. You've got tons of torque with the electric motor.

There is no transmission; it's direct drive. It doesn't feel slushy like a variable transmission might and you never get any shift feel.

In terms of handling, it was the same as a normal Equinox."

Braking

"When they first gave us the car, the software didn't have a very graceful switch between the regenerative braking [which sends energy back to the vehicle battery] and standard braking. When it switched over to full friction braking it would slow you down faster than you were expecting.

Now it's totally seamless. You wouldn't know the difference."

Space

"The hydrogen tank only encroaches into normal car space inside the trunk. It's an extra hump. The second row of seats has the same space as a normal Equinox."

Driving Patterns

"Our driving patterns are such that we'd go down to Irvine and visit family out in Riverside. Even though it's a limited range it didn't impact our daily driving. It was just our normal car."

Range/fuel economy

"One time we went down to South Orange County and we didn't have access to the fueling station in Irvine. I was a little worried that we wouldn't make it back. I was driving it fast on the freeway; I'm sure I wasn't getting the best fuel economy. The sweet spot of optimal fuel economy for this car is 55-70 mph. They had told us the range was about 160 miles and we hit 150 miles. We were able to get it back to Burbank to a filling station."

Fueling

"There were two filling stations in Burbank. Now there is just one, but it's a faster filling pump. We've also used one at UC Irvine. It takes four to six minutes to fill up a full tank. The old pump took 20-30 minutes.

To fill up, you plug in the nozzle and turn a little lever to make sure it locks, and away you go. You're filling up with compressed hydrogen but you can't see it.

When you're filling up you might hear the tanks creak a little bit, like if you've ever used a CNG [compressed natural gas] powered car. I've also heard the hydrogen going through the hose, which has an initial hiss as it is pressurizing."

Safety

"Before we got the car we had tons of questions. GM went through a good process of showing us the safety features which put us at ease to know they did a lot of work to make it very safe.

The car has two stages of alarms to alerts to the driver. The first one would shut down the car, and it would recommend you to get out of the car, and the second one was an 'abandon the vehicle right now' warning.

There is a pressure release valve to vent the hydrogen very safely. They mathematically calculated that if the hydrogen released at a certain speed it wouldn't combust. They explained all this to us.

We never had any problem with ours."

Maintenance

"During the three months we had the car, they once wanted to put in some new software so they gave us a loaner. Other than that, it was seamless. They checked the tire pressure for us at the GM station.

I had heard one or two drivers in colder climates got a message saying 'fuel cell warming' that resulted in reduced power. In this climate we didn't have that problem.

 

 

 

 

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris Brown is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News for Bobit Business Media. Through these publications, online newsletters, trade events and associations, Chris covers all aspects of the fleet world, including fleet management, manufacturer fleet activities, the fleet leasing industry, vehicle remarketing, rental industry news, car rental taxation and legislation as well as automotive environmental initiatives and trends.

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