by Clint Burgess

Alternative fuel is a hot item on the controversial road to making our cars go. Wars have been fought over oil, auto manufacturers are feeling the pressure of a new direction in propulsion systems and the consumer is left to sort it all out. It sounds like a horrible mess, but in the end, it's up to human ingenuity to find a way out. Just one of the new paths to an oil-free utopia is hydrogen. That's right, good ol' H on the periodic table.

General Motors is developing new vehicles with the ability to run on hydrogen. The automobiles are not being mass-produced at this time, but they're past the concept stages. In fact, pieces of the technology used in the hydrogen cars are being implemented into GM vehicles that are already in use.

The Hy-wire is the flagship car of the future at General Motors. Its space-age design implies that this is something different, and it is. The vehicle is powered by a fuel cell rather than a combustion engine. The fuel cell is contained in an 11-inch-thick chassis and generates electricity to power the vehicle through a chemical reaction. The interaction between hydrogen and oxygen when combined in the fuel cell causes a reaction that results in the production of electricity. The result is a vehicle that leaves no mess on the environment and emits only water as a byproduct.

The propulsion system of the Hy-wire is not the only innovation happening here, though. The vehicle combines novel ideas like a driver control unit that is more like fighter-jet steering mechanism. It also offers the reconfiguration of body style adjustments due to the fact that there is not large engine in the front end dictating those specifications.

As forward-thinking as this all may sound, GM has been applying some of this technology to its current vehicle lines. The HydroGen 3 is a modified Zafira minivan. It has been outfitted with fuel cell systems and is as clean as the Hy-wire in the sense that there are no emissions besides water. This vehicle is already in rigorous use on three continents and will supply GM with valuable feedback that can be applied toward future fuel cell endeavors. The HydroGen 3 may be a van and it may have an alternative fuel system, but don't think that those elements make it any less of a vehicle. It can travel up to 250 miles on a fully stocked supply of liquid hydrogen, and it tops out at 99 miles per hour.

As General Motors moves toward the future of vehicle propulsion, the company also realizes that things won't change overnight. People still love to drive their cars and, more to the point, their big cars. GM has taken note and is taking aim at the stigma of the gas-guzzling SUV. The company is offering hybrid models (defined as any vehicle that combines two or more sources of power) in some of their large SUVs. It is hoping to make a difference by shaving gallons of fuel use off of some of the biggest gas-guzzling vehicles around.

Washington and Oregon are two of the only six states currently offering larger hybrid vehicles. Keep an eye out in 2006, when GM will also be offering hybrid technology in the Saturn Vue and the Chevrolet Malibu.

Publication date: 10/14/04

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