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Hydrogen-powered vans to fill up at Shell

Although the experimental cars will not end up in home garages anytime soon, they will be lent out for testing, and the managers of the program expect many of the test drives to start in Washington

By John Tierney  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

General Motors' Hy-Wire fuel-cell car on display at the Geneva auto show this week. The Europeans believe in diesel and have been investing heavily in high-mileage engines.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Drivers of some General Motors minivans will soon be pulling into a Shell station here to fill up on hydrogen, the two companies announced Tuesday. They said it would be the first hydrogen pump at an American service station and that hydrogen cars could be in showrooms by the end of the decade.

But skeptics wonder if these supposed cars of the future will be powered mainly by an old-fashioned indigenous source of energy: politics. Critics say these experimental cars will be cruising Washington mainly to impress Congress so that the auto industry gets more subsidies and feels less pressure to improve the fuel efficiency of current cars.

Hydrogen-powered cars became Washington's hot wheels during the State of the Union speech in January, when President Bush proposed more research and predicted that the cars could be commercially practical by 2020.

The cars, which emit only water vapor from their tailpipes, could help reduce pollution and oil consumption, but some experts wonder if they will ever be affordable.

The six experimental minivans that are scheduled to arrive in Washington in May have cost more than US$1 million apiece, said Dr. Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development and planning. Each minivan, an Opel Zafira converted to house a stack of fuel cells that generate electricity through a chemical reaction that uses hydrogen, has enough power to accelerate crisply and reach 100 miles per hour, he said.

"We think we can build a compelling and affordable car by 2010," he said. "It's a big challenge, but as a technologist, you have to be optimistic. Four years ago, I never dreamed we'd have made as much progress as we have by now. So far, we haven't seen anything that says it can't be done."

Back in Washington's court

The experimental cars will not end up in any home garages, at least not soon. They will be lent for test drives, and the managers of the program expect many of the test drives to start from Capitol Hill.

"There's a real important reason for our policy-makers to have exposure to this technology," Burns said.

Experimental fleets of hydrogen cars built by Toyota and Honda have been operating in California since last year, and GM expects to put hydrogen-powered Federal Express trucks on the streets of Tokyo next week. The chief innovation in Washington is the cooperation between a car maker and an oil company. One obstacle to the spread of hydrogen cars is the chicken-and-egg problem of building cars for which there are no refueling stations.

"Shell's work with GM will show that filling up the car with hydrogen is as simple and safe as filling up with gasoline," said Donald Huberts, the chief executive of Shell Hydrogen. He said that a local Shell station would be reconfigured by October to dispense hydrogen during the rest of the experiment, which is to last until 2005.

The hydrogen dispensers are supposed to have the look and feel of regular gasoline pumps. Drivers will use hoses with specially fitted valves to fill their tanks. Some of the cars will use extremely cold liquid hydrogen; others will use hydrogen in a compressed, gaseous form.

The two companies are paying for this project themselves, but their executives said they hoped that the federal government would help pay for similar research in the future and perhaps buy fleets of cars. The Bush administration has announced plans to spend US$1.7 billion over five years on two projects: the FreedomCar, to explore making the technology work in hydrogen cars, and FreedomFuel, which will study how to produce, store and deliver hydrogen.

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