General Motors tests hydrogen cars

March 26, 2008 7:23:54 PM PDT
In Los Angeles, a small fleet of some unusual and futuristic cars are hitting the roads.

They're part of a market testing program from General Motors. It's an idea that might eventually render the internal combustion engine obsolete.

In Los Angeles, gas consumption is as much a part of life as breathing. It is a place where drivers have fuel on their brains, but not their conscience.

"How's your gas mileage?" asked ABC7's Wayne Freedman.

"What gas?" said Matt Mackey.

As in, no gas, no guilt -- because this car runs on hydrogen.

And so, here is a peek at a possible future -- now on roads around Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

It is part of a national test program by General Motors, with ordinary folks like Matt Mackey behind their wheels.

He is a software engineer in regular life, one of tens of thousands of people who applied to try the car for three months in return for feedback, lots of feedback.

"Do you get the feeling they are listening and paying attention?" asked ABC7's Wayne Freedman.

"Yes, definitely. We get responses from them as we go. If we pose a question, 'you know I had this happen, what's going on,' they'll come back and tell us, 'oh yeah the battery was full," said test driver Matt Mackey.

Mechanically, it's a lot like any other car -- it has wheels, brakes, axels. But underneath, this is where it changes. The hydrogen is up there, there is a high voltage battery pack and underneath is the fuel cell.

Alain Guiboux serves as what GM calls a 'driver relationship manager'. He is an interface between this new technology, and a general public that knows next to nothing about hydrogen cars.

They emit only water vapor for instance -- the by product of hydrogen reacting with oxygen.

"We're taking advantage of what Mother Nature gives us in the simplest terms," said Alain Guiboux from General Motors.

On the road, these cars sound and feel like the electric half of a hybrid, but more powerful and without the gasoline engine.

"When you step on it, it goes," said Mackey

The cars go zero to sixty in 12 seconds, and get about 150 miles between fill-ups, which can be complicated.

Matt plugs in the data cable, which uploads to a company computer. The hydrogen goes in at high pressure, but the big problem is, there aren't many places to fill up.

"There are a total of four, plus the GM hub, where I can have them fill it up, for me," said

And that's the challenge. For these cars to succeed, America needs an as yet un-built, a hydrogen fuel infrastructure.

"It's like the chicken and the egg. If you have the fueling capabilities, the vehicles will be there," said Guiboux.

Meantime, GM will not put a pub dollar value on these cars, or their mass-produced successors, which may come to market in two or three years.

But in a country used to driving foreign cars and burning foreign oil, it is positive news, for once.

"People who are afraid that America has lost its touch I think it's just not the case," said Mackey.