At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the only thing more ubiquitous than Gordon Campbell cavorting with the Games’ three mascots was General Motors. The company provided some 4,600 courtesy vehicles for VIPs, dignitaries, media, and pretty much anyone else who needed a ride at the Winter Games. Sometimes it seemed like the streets of the city were full of GMCs, Chevrolets, and Cadillacs, and some of those who availed themselves of the vehicles were Olympics boss John Furlong, opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, and Premier Campbell himself.
Among the Escalades, Enclaves, and Acadias were eight zero-emissions Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell cars. The company laid on 10 of the clean-running compact SUVs (two were for backup) to schlep people to events in and around Vancouver. The idea was to get onboard with the Winter Games’ purported “green” theme, while demonstrating the virtues of fuel-cell technology.
The Equinoxes were also part of a 115-strong fleet deployed throughout the U.S. as part of GM’s “Project Driveway”. Usually at home in California, the limited-production Equinoxes actually debuted in Vancouver last summer, when they took part in the “hydrogen highway” project championed by Campbell and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the Olympics ended, they all returned to California, where they were pressed into duty in various cities throughout the state.
Under the hood of the Olympic Equinoxes is a 97-horsepower electric motor fed by a fuel cell “stack” powered by three compressed-hydrogen tanks located near the back of the vehicle. There’s also a nickel-metal hydride battery pack located under the floor in the middle of the vehicle that’s kept charged by a regenerative braking system. A dash-mounted graphic display keeps the driver informed as to how much electricity is being consumed/generated and where it’s going.
The overall result is a surprisingly lively four-passenger SUV that is virtually silent in operation and accelerates from zero to 100 kilometres per hour in approximately 12 seconds. Although it runs out of reserve and passing power pretty quickly, it also has acceptable highway manners and is remarkably nimble around town. As is often the case with these kinds of cars, it’s almost eerie to drive it. I guess we’re just so accustomed to mechanical noise with internal-combustion-engined vehicles that it’s disconcerting when a car makes only a faint whirring.
Like most electric vehicles, this breed of Equinox has excellent takeoff power, with instantly available torque—some 236 foot-pounds in total. Just turn the key twice to boot up the system, wait a second, and off you go. Aside from the fact that only water vapour comes out of the tailpipe, it behaves pretty much like its conventional internal-combustion counterparts. Maybe even better.
Except for one thing. With a maximum range of 240 kilometres—which, quite frankly, is on the optimistic side—and only one refuelling facility in the Lower Mainland, these particular Equinoxes were confined to the Greater Vancouver area and didn’t make the 240-kilometre return trip to Whistler, where many of the Games’ events took place.
“We did have one request for a car to be taken up to Whistler,” said GM fleet comanager Lisa Calvi. “Nancy Greene Raine specifically asked for one of the cars to be made available up in Whistler, and we considered trucking one up there for her.” Logistics—not to mention GM’s bottom line—put the kibosh on that particular scenario.
Which is one of the major problems that is part and parcel of the Equinox and others like it: where to refuel and service these vehicles. Although there’s a refuelling facility at B.C. Hydro’s Powertech plant in Surrey (hydrogen is a byproduct of hydroelectric power generation) and a small recharging unit at UBC for internal use, there is absolutely no infrastructure in place in Canada or the U.S. In all of Los Angeles, for example, there are maybe six refuelling facilities.
And let’s face it, recharging a vehicle with 10,000 psi compressed hydrogen gas fuel tanks is not quite the same as filling ’er up with Regular or Premium. Some refuelling facilities in the U.S. require you to don a helmet and fireproof safety suit before you can get access to the pump, while others require you to take a brief orientation course, and there are formidable storage and transport issues with this volatile fuel.
Nor is it likely that General Motors will be manufacturing hydrogen-propelled Equinoxes in significant numbers in the near future. Given its current financial state, GM can only handle one alternate-fuel car at a time, and it’s fully committed to its Volt hybrid-car program. Where the Volt is actually slated for production and sale in the near future (spring of 2011, apparently), fuel-cell cars are still in the experimental phase.
The Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell is interesting and 100-percent clean-running, certainly, but ready for prime time? Not just yet.