Why GM And Honda Are Betting Millions On Hydrogen-Powered Cars, Here – Now

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Why GM And Honda Are Betting Millions On Hydrogen-Powered Cars 09:43 Download

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 relieve 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 stir the wheels with electrical 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 three hundred 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, electrical power. That’s what we generate, the power that moves the traction drive.”

On the benefits of hydrogen

“They are a fairly a few. Very 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 quick, because it is an electrified drive, so we have high torque across a broad 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.”

The General Motors Electrovan, the very first transfer of fuel cell technology from President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to NASA to securely land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. (Courtesy General Motors)

On GM’s history with hydrogen fuel cell technology, and the one thousand nine hundred sixty six Electrovan

“Yeah, the Electrovan. That’s a truly interesting vehicle. It’s actually a big blue van. It took an entire full-size van to stir the fuel cell around. It had over Two,000 cells. It was an interesting vehicle for the time, but it wasn’t truly practical. It indeed 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 very first introduction of technology out of the Apollo space program into something in the civilian sector.”

On criticism of hydrogen fuel cells

“The very first thing you’ve gotta embark 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 two hundred thirty eight miles. But it’s a relatively puny car. And if you want to go to larger vehicles that travel longer distances, and they’re stronger vehicles that might have more utility, that’s where the fuel cell comes in.”

“This technology is not a science fair project any longer. We've moved out of that phase long ago.”

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 demonstrable 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 $Two million for a station. It would actually cost a little bit less than that to put in a petroleum station. So these are not shocking numbers. And the advantage that the hydrogen infrastructure can provide is that it gives you the capability to very quickly fuel the vehicle. So you pull in and you link 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, four hundred 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 observing 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 private mobility solutions where a fuel cell can provide a lot of advantages. You can commence to think of things like forklift trucks, are one, where in many plants where you budge packages around, you’re always attempting 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 witnessing is, as you commence 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 two thousand seven 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 combination with air. It goes up at about forty five miles per hour straight up, so a slight wind disperses it very lightly. 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 packaged. Actually, we took a display of one of these tanks to a demonstrate, and we went through thirty eight sawzall blades attempting to cut this tank open so you could get a look inwards. 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.”

“Many of the fresh technologies begin out being more costly, and that’s for a combination of things. Very first of all, when you begin 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 very first duo iterations to design the cost out, and we’ve already made dramatic advances in that. For example, 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 eighty gram of platinum in that stack. Now the systems that we’re testing are down in the twelve 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 attempting to take more of the emissions out of our vehicles, we’re always attempting 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 requests it.”

“We always are attempting to make our vehicles more efficient, because if that’s something that the customer is going to value, we want to be there to suggest 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 ten years ago. These are things that proceed to advance, it doesn’t matter which part of the product line that you’re talking about.”

This segment aired on March Trio, 2017.

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