Why GM And Honda Are Betting Millions On Hydrogen-Powered Cars

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The Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 fuel cell electric vehicle, a concept that marries fuel cell technology and its advantages of on-board water production, exportable electric power and near silent operation with extreme off-road capability. (Courtesy General Motors)

General Motors announced an $85 million partnership with Honda this January to produce hydrogen fuel cell systems in Michigan.

The clean-fuel concept has been around for decades, but the market for hydrogen-powered cars is still in its infancy. The announcement comes even as automakers, including GM, are pushing the Trump administration to relax fuel efficiency standards.

In a View From The Top conversation, Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Charlie Freese, GM’s executive director of global fuel cell business.

Interview Highlights

On how hydrogen-powered cars work

“A hydrogen car is a type of electrified vehicle. So, what we do is we move the wheels with electric motors, but the power that drive those motors comes from the fuel cell. And what a fuel cell is is it’s basically a stack of individual cells — there might be about 300 of them in a stack — and in one side we bring in hydrogen, and on the other side, we bring in air with oxygen. And there’s a reaction that directly converts those two into water and makes power, electric power. That’s what we generate, the power that moves the traction drive.”

On the benefits of hydrogen

“They are a quite a few. First, it’s over twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine, which is a big advantage right there. The next thing is it is very quiet. It operates very efficiently and the accelerations are very fast, because it is an electric drive, so we have high torque across a wide speed range. And the emissions that come out are water. So it’s a zero-emission vehicle, we don’t need to worry about other gaseous emissions. It also reduces the reliance on petroleum, which is a big advantage.”

On GM’s history with hydrogen fuel cell technology, and the 1966 Electrovan

“Yeah, the Electrovan. That’s a really interesting vehicle. It’s actually a big blue van. It took an entire full-size van to move the fuel cell around. It had over 2,000 cells. It was an interesting vehicle for the time, but it wasn’t really practical. It really highlighted what the limitations of the technology were at the time. But it was a big advance when it was created because it was the first introduction of technology out of the Apollo space program into something in the civilian sector.”

On criticism of hydrogen fuel cells

“The first thing you’ve gotta start with is, there is no single silver-bullet technology. General Motors makes battery powered vehicles and we make fuel cell powered technology. And it’s because, for different types of customers, there are different solutions that will better fit their needs. So when you talk about putting a lot of power in a dense area, sometimes a battery can be a good way to do that. But when you talk about putting enough energy onboard that you don’t need to be worrying about how do you get from 100-mile vehicles to 200-mile vehicles — now we have the Chevrolet Bolt that’s at 238 miles. But it’s a relatively small car. And if you want to go to larger vehicles that travel longer distances, and they’re heavier vehicles that might have more utility, that’s where the fuel cell comes in.”


On infrastructure for refueling hydrogen-powered cars, and other uses for the technology

“The infrastructure is not something that’s coast to coast right now — that’s obvious to everybody. California’s the place that it’s centered right now. There is some work to put an East coast infrastructure in. But the stations actually end up being — it costs about a little over $2 million for a station. It would actually cost a little bit less than that to put in a petroleum station. So these are not outrageous numbers. And the advantage that the hydrogen infrastructure can provide is that it gives you the ability to very quickly fuel the vehicle. So you pull in and you attach a nozzle that looks a lot like the petroleum nozzle that you might use in your petroleum-fueled vehicle. And in three minutes, you’re back on the road and you might have 300, 400 miles of range.”

“I think you will see a growing fleet of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in places where they make sense. And again, it comes into some of these larger vehicles. This technology is not a science fair project any longer. We’ve moved out of that phase long ago. And so you’re seeing it now come into some of these places where it can provide a value equation for a customer. And there are a lot of things that are even outside of the personal mobility solutions where a fuel cell can provide a lot of advantages. You can start to think of things like forklift trucks, are one, where in many plants where you move packages around, you’re always trying to get more uptime of the fleet of forklift trucks. You don’t want to have the downtime of recharging. In many cases, they have two battery packs. One is charging while the other is being used because it takes so long to recharge the battery packs. Other things that we’re seeing is, as you start to think about things like aerospace, there’s a number of aerospace applications that make a lot of sense for hydrogen. We’re also looking at some military applications. We’ve got some in some unmanned, undersea vehicle applications, and also some tactical vehicles that we’re exploring right now with the Army.”

On safety of hydrogen-powered cars

“We’ve had our fleet of fuel cell vehicles running since 2007 on public roads. And yes, they are safe. We know this because we’ve gone through and addressed most of the things that are unique about hydrogen in the way that we’ve designed and architected the vehicle. Any time you put energy onboard a vehicle, you have to treat it with respect, and hydrogen is no different in that way. But there are some things about hydrogen that are actually pretty nice from a safety perspective. When it leaks, it tends to dissipate very, very quickly rather than staying in a combustible mixture with air. It goes up at about 45 miles per hour straight up, so a slight wind disperses it very easily. So, those are all good.

“The way we store it onboard the vehicle is a tank — it’s a pressurized tank. And these tanks are carbon-fiber wrapped. Actually, we took a display of one of these tanks to a show, and we went through 38 sawzall blades trying to cut this tank open so you could get a look inside. So they are very strong systems, and they’re designed to be that way. And then we certify that the vehicles are going to be safe based on our crash tests and the simulation work that we do.”

On the vehicles’ cost

“Many of the new technologies start out being more costly, and that’s for a combination of things. First of all, when you start out with a technology, they’re not in high volume. So what we’re doing now with the fuel cell is we’re actually just going through the first couple iterations to design the cost out, and we’ve already made dramatic advances in that. For instance, the catalyst material that makes the fuel cell reaction occur is platinum. And we went from the system that I put on the road with the team back in 2007, I would have been looking at a 80 gram of platinum in that stack. Now the systems that we’re testing are down in the 12 gram of platinum range, and the team’s been able to take even more out in some of the advanced work we’re doing in the laboratory, looking at things down in the seven-gram range. And that takes one of the major cost drivers right away from the fuel cell altogether.”

On why GM is asking the EPA to roll back fuel efficiency standards

“The reason we’re pushing further into the fuel cell technologies is, we can all see a day where… as we’re always trying to take more of the emissions out of our vehicles, we’re always trying to make them more efficient and prove the customer value equation. And frankly, these are long lead time investments. You don’t do this over a six-month cycle or anything like that. We have to develop the technologies so that they’re ready when the market demands it.”

“We always are trying to make our vehicles more efficient, because if that’s something that the customer is going to value, we want to be there to offer that.”

On whether customers value efficiency

“It depends. Some customers will do that. Other customers might bias towards other things in the vehicle. Some people want a sportier vehicle, some people want more utility out of a larger vehicle.”

“There’s not a vehicle that we have a road today that’s gone backward in efficiency. I drive a full-size SUV that’s getting fuel efficiency that I could have only dreamt of 10 years ago. These are things that I continue to advance, it doesn’t matter which part of the product line that you’re talking about.”

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