Editor’s Note: This story was initially passed on to us by Bob Wallace, who highlighted this important and interesting quote from the Forbes article: “Half of the 8,600 designers and engineers who work on the products and controls that make GM cars and trucks move—literally—are involved with alternative and electric propulsion systems.” –Zachary Shahan
Our friends over at Forbes magazine seem awfully excited about last week’s big announcement from General Motors, which let the world know that GM Powertrain is changing its name to GM Propulsion Systems. I’m excited too — the name change is significant because it draws attention to GM’s growing interest in next-generation automotive technology — but I have a different reason for being excited.
GM Hearts The Fuel Cell EV
I’m excited because in its press release, GM seems particularly interested in making sure that people know about its fuel cell EV efforts. The release kicks off with this statement from executive VP for Global Product Development Mark Reuss:
The new name is another step on our journey to redefine transportation and mobility. Global Propulsion Systems better conveys what we are developing and offering to our customers: an incredibly broad, diverse lineup – ranging from high-tech 3-cylinder gasoline engines to fuel cells, V8 diesel engines to battery electric systems, and 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-speed to continuously variable transmissions.
Forbes skipped right over the fuel cell EV part and focused on the the company’s battery EV offerings (the gas-electric Volt and the forthcoming all-electric Bolt), so let’s pick up the slack and take a closer look that at that fuel cell program.
Like It Or Not, Here Comes The GM Fuel Cell EV
GM has been ramping up its fuel cell program since 2007, when it launched an on-road research program with a fleet of 119 fuel cell EVs. By 2012, GM was hooking up with the US Army to establish the world’s largest military fleet of fuel cell EVs in Hawaii.
At an initial count of 16, the Army’s new fuel cell fleet was pretty small potatoes, but it paved the way for an additional collaboration with the Army’s TARDEC vehicle research lab, resulting in a 12-month “extreme” test of a Chevy Colorado pickup outfitted with a fuel cell. The test kicked off in November 2015, so it will be a while before the final analysis, but TARDEC director Paul Rogers anticipates an interesting 12 months in store:
The potential capabilities hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can bring to the Warfighter are extraordinary, and our engineers and scientists are excited about the opportunity to exercise the limits of this demonstrator.
FCVs are very quiet vehicles, which scouts, special operators and other specialties place a premium. What’s more, fuel cells generate water as a by-product, something extremely valuable in austere environments.
Another big move occurred in 2013, when GM announced that it would collaborate with Honda and other stakeholders on next-generation fuel cell EV and hydrogen storage technology.
Skipping back up to more recent years, in October 2015, GM announced a set of initiatives that confirmed the company’s commitment to fuel cell EV technology, and more:
In collaboration with Honda, it is developing a next-generation hydrogen fuel cell stack and hydrogen storage systems. GM confirmed plans to jointly develop commercially viable fuel cell technologies with Honda in the 2020 timeframe. Because the technologies can also provide promising financial rewards, GM indicated it is pursuing non-automotive fuel cell applications for the aerospace and military industries.
That bit about GM’s interest in aerospace applications is interesting, considering that one of the primary drawbacks in the current state of fuel cell EV technology is cost. [Editor’s note: The other big barriers are that fuel cell EVs aren’t green and don’t have the key performance or convenience benefits of battery-electric vehicles.] That was once a big obstacle for the commercial solar industry, too.
According to our friends over at the US Department of Energy, researchers were tinkering around with solar-generated electricity by the late 19th century. A huge breakthrough is attributed to Bell Labs in 1954 and by 1958 solar energy was on its way to becoming the “accepted energy source” for space applications — but practically nothing else, because it was too expensive.
Years of progress (and profitability) in aerospace applications eventually positioned the US solar industry for commercial breakthrough in recent years, helped along by a suite of programs launched by the Obama Administration under the SunShot program.
Similarly, battery EV technology got off to a promising start in the 19th century but competition from gasmobiles soon shoved it aside, and they languished in obscurity until the Obama Administration gave them some TLC spearheaded by the EV Everywhere initiative. [Editor’s Note: Obama’s support has been great, but the EV tax credit was actually initiated under George W. Bush, and Tesla’s role in getting the market going is arguably the biggest factor in the market’s growth. Additionally, EU, Chinese, and Japanese regulations have stimulated much global EV demand.]
I’m thinking that a similar pattern will steer fuel cell EV technology in a commercially competitive direction, especially as ground-based military applications add to the R&D pot.
Last December, the Energy Department issued a progress report on its hydrogen and fuel cells program that characterizes 2015 as a “landmark year,” partly for these reasons:
…launching the $1 Million H2 Refuel H-Prize; demonstrating the world’s first fleet of hydrogen fuel cell airport ground support equipment; establishing national-laboratory-led consortia in key R&D areas; and supporting the public-private partnership, H2USA, through national-laboratory-led efforts developing financial assessment tools for hydrogen infrastructure and critical equipment to validate the performance of hydrogen stations as they come on line.
Last fall, the Energy Department also staged its first ever National Fuel Cell Day, which somehow escaped the attention of the media. The accelerating emergence of renewable hydrogen from non-fossil sources will come into play, too.
Back To The Bolt
We’re not saying that fuel cell EVs will someday turn battery EVs into dinosaurs, especially not in the continental US where massive wind and solar resources give battery EVs a huge environmental advantage. We’re thinking that land scarcity is a main driver of vigorous fuel cell EV programs in the UK and elsewhere in the European Union, Japan, and Hawaii to name a few.
Besides, it would take a lot to keep us from wanting to have one of these in our driveway:
Photos by Tina Casey.