GM To World: “We’re Still Developing Hydrogen Fuel Cells”

The hydrogen economy. It sounds so good on paper. All of our vehicles driving around emitting nothing but water vapor fueled from hydrogen produced by power from the sun. It’s been a dream since before I was born.

I remember reading a copy of Popular Mechanics when I was in 7th grade that said the hydrogen economy was realistically a decade away… that was in the 80s. As each decade has come and gone since then, the hydrogen economy seems to be perpetually a decade away.

Is the hydrogen economy something we should just throw in the towel on (at least for now), or should we continue funding this area of research even though other technologies are more promising for the time being?

Back when Bush took office and used his first State of the Union address to tout the hydrogen economy and announce increased funding for hydrogen research, hydrogen experienced a bit of a rather short-lived rebirth. According to the movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, that rebirth was one of the most important factors for the death of the first wave of modern battery-powered electric cars (remember the EV1?).

But ever since then, hydrogen has started to fall out of favor again. So much so, that when Steven Chu took over as the head honcho at the US Department of Energy just over a year ago, he drastically cut funding for all hydrogen research saying that it made much more sense to focus on battery powered electric cars. Of course, that funding was reinstated under pressure from industry, but now hydrogen has been marked, and is ever under the knife.

GM, having invested billions of dollars in hydrogen research over time, is, apparently, loathe to give up the farm on this one. Last September GM introduced a next generation fuel cell platform designed to take up only the space required by a traditional four-banger combustion engine and should be much cheaper to produce (some say current generation fuel cell vehicles cost as much as $1 million dollars each to build).

Well, now GM’s saying that this new fuel cell stack will reach production by 2015 and be placed into vehicles in GM’s already existing “Project Driveway” — a limited group of fuel cell test drivers. In a way, you gotta give it to them for sticking with it in the face of overwhelming odds. But you also wonder when they’ll finally say “enough is enough”? Even if some group of politicians further down the road says “Oh hey, what about that hydrogen thing?” and decided to give it some more funding again, you never know when that support will end as another group of politicians turns up.

There’s simply not enough stability in political opinion about the hydrogen economy to make it a good business plan to continue dumping money into research when the required government investment (infrastructure, research money) is so inconsistent. Plus, to be honest, if they are going to focus on spending money on only one thing to fix our problems, battery powered electric cars certainly make much more sense right now.

Even with that though, my own personal opinion is that we should continue to do research on ALL solutions because you never know when you’ll be up a creek without the right paddle and that one fuel cell in your back pocket will get you home. But I’m afraid that argument does not work on the political popularity battlefield where politicians are increasingly held to the fire for “unwisely” spending money.

Sources: GM, GM-volt.com

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.