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What It’s Like to Drive on Hydrogen

by Ron CoganMarch 7, 2022
Green Car Journal editors have witnessed the progress being made with hydrogen vehicles over 30 years. You may not be one of the lucky ones driving one today, but you could be in the future.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle illustration.

Our journey of discovery with hydrogen vehicles started with the Mercedes-Benz’ fuel cell-powered NECAR II (New Electric Car II) in Berlin back in the mid-1990s. Since then, we have driven an array of hydrogen fueled vehicles from the world’s automakers on test tracks and on the highway. Along the way we have analyzed their capabilities and the strides being made in the hydrogen vehicle field over time, always impressed with constant improvement in their technology, cost, durability, component downsizing, and packaging.

What we’ve found in recent years is that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles drive like their more conventional counterparts, exhibiting satisfying levels of power and an overall positive driving experience. Their cabins are quiet, devoid of earlier developmental issues like gear whine or compressor noise. There is no sound or vibration from internal combustion because power is generated electrochemically without combustion. This electricity powers one or more electric motors that drive the vehicle, just like a battery EV. No greenhouse gases are produced and no emissions other than water vapor.

Driving the Equinox Fuel Cell

While there have been many important milestones over the years from the automakers pursuing hydrogen power, perhaps none was as notable as our experience driving GM’s Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell in 2007. At the time we knew the crossover we were piloting was one of the most advanced vehicles on the planet, Yet we set out on our drive chatting away with our GM guide almost oblivious to the high technology at work as we motored along, as if this was an everyday journey. That was a telling moment.

It may be that this crossover vehicle was fueled with hydrogen, created its power through an electrochemical process in lieu of combustion, and used the same kind of technology that created electricity and water onboard the Space Shuttle of the era. No matter. Driving it felt so normal . We were completely at ease during the drive with little thought of the processes at work behind the scenes. And that’s just what GM – and in fact, the entire automotive industry – was after. The deed was done.

It wasn’t always so, though developers of fuel cell vehicles had come ever-closer over the years. The ultimate goal was to create hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that disguised all the advanced technology at work. From the driver’s seat, some fuel cell vehicles leading up to our Equinox Fuel Cell drive were more seamless than others, like Toyota’s FCHV and Honda’s FCX. In many cases, though, developmental fuel cell vehicles functioned quite well but were still a degree of separation from production vehicles in certain areas.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Challenges

Among the many challenges of the day was making the electrically powered drive-by-wire systems required in fuel cell vehicles act and feel like familiar mechanical systems of the day. At times, accelerator and brake pedal input routed through central control units felt a bit too much like on-off switches in developmental fuel cell vehicles. While otherwise eerily silent, high-pitched electric motor whine and sometimes fuel cell compressor noise were present. These challenges were being aggressively addressed as fuel cell vehicle development marched ahead, and they appeared fully resolved in the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell crossover we were driving.

Soon after our time behind the wheel of the Equinox, drivers in suburban Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C. also had the ability to experience these vehicles through the automaker’s “Project Driveway.” This program placed more than 100 Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles in the hands of private motorists ranging from regular families to celebrities. Drivers were provided free use of an Equinox Fuel Cell and the hydrogen fuel needed to run it for an average period of about three months. In return, participants provided GM feedback about the vehicles’ performance and their views about the experience.

Following our test drive of the Equinox Fuel Cell, , we were certain these advanced hydrogen vehicles would have no problems keeping up with the daily driving demands of Project Driveway participants. Plenty of space for four passengers and 32 cubic feet of cargo volume were afforded by careful packaging of GM’s fourth-generation fuel cell propulsion system, including a 1.8 kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and three 10,000 psi hydrogen storage tanks.

Driving 160 Miles on Hydrogen

The Equinox Fuel Cell’s 160 mile driving range was designed to meet the needs of most driving chores. Sub-freezing operating capability was an additional advancement of particular importance to East Coast drivers. As is the case with most fuel cell vehicles, fueling up the Equinox with hydrogen was done in about the same amount of time as filling up a gasoline car. The hydrogen-powered Equinox Fuel Cell met the same federal safety standards as all cars. Importantly, it also attained the important benchmark of being certified a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) by EPA, the ultimate goal for all motor vehicles of the future.

Chevrolet’s Equinox Fuel Cell so impressed Green Car Journal editors at the time that it was recognized with the magazine’s Green Car Vision Award™. This marked the first time the magazine honored a limited production vehicle for its forward-thinking technologies and potential for influencing the future of personal mobility. For a highly advanced developmental hydrogen vehicle tasked with shepherding in an entirely new age of transportation, that’s perhaps the highest praise we could give.