General Motors will offer a fuel cell powered vehicle in 2011, meeting the commitment to putting fuel cell vehicles on the market announced earlier by the Chariman of Honda. But the numbers of vehicles involved in both programs are trivial. GM vice president of research and development Larry Burns has told USA Today Money that GM is working on fuel cell vehicles “for competitive reasons,” not merely as a research project. Burns cited work being done at Honda and Mercedes-Benz as examples of the efforts of other automakers in the development of fuel cell powerplants.
 
Amid much fanfare, Honda announced that it is going into production of the FCX fuel cell vehicle for 2008. What the company soft-pedaled, however, and completely omitted from its website, is that “production” is no more than 100 vehicles, maybe not even that many. Chevrolet has already distributed that many fuel cell powered Equinox’s to consumers, although they’ve been loaned for evaluation, rather than leased or sold. Honda’s puffery, however, is not a sincere announcement of a real-world production car that anyone will be able to buy. It is an announcement of an experiment, much like that of General Motors years ago with an electric car that was “leased” for a limited term by the company.
 
Chevrolet’s won’t be a real market car, either. To be based on the Volt, but using fuel cells rather than batteries in the drivetrain, the limited number of fuel cell vehicles also would be leased only. 
 
The real question is why are these companies bothering?
 
Each of the few fuel cell vehicles to be made available to the public will cost the manufacturing company “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to USA Today Money. Moreover, the magazine reports that the government estimates that the best price that could possibly be achieved for hydrogen is equivalent to a gasoline price of $1.00 to $1.50 per gallon, but that General Motors anticipates aprice equivalent to $2.00 to $3.00 per gallon. 
 
That makes hydrogen a poor choice of fuel, compared to gasoline. The pump price of gasoline is not the cost of gasoline plus profit. It is the cost of gasoline plus a lot of taxes: federal taxes and state taxes. It is not realistic to believe that politicians would allow hydrogen to become an automotive fuel and escape taxation. Adding taxes to the predicted price of hydrogen would make it vastly more expensive than gasoline is currently.
 
Automotive history is replete with examples of future fantasies like fuel cell cars, including projects promoted by large automobile companies. From the 1950’s into the 1970’s, it was gas turbines. General Motors created its first Firebird concept car with a gas turbine engine in 1954, which still exists and is still driveable. Rover in Great Britan – then a fairly big company – produced its first experimental gas turbine car in 1952. 

Before GM was finished with the concept, it had built three turbine concept Firebirds, to operable, and a turbine truck as late as 1965. Chrysler went even further with the turbine: it built 55 gas turbine vehicles which were turned over to members of the public for evaluation, much as Chevrolet is currently doing with the fuel cell Equinox. Three of them are still in operating condition, though most were scrapped by Chrysler after the program was over to avoid paying an import duty on the bodies, which had been a limited production run from Ghia in Italy.
 
The gas turbine powerplant was developed at a serious level for over a decade. In retrospect, it appears to have been an absurd idea, never practical, never marketable. Turbines are exceptionally hot, do not give rapid responses to throttle inputs, and aren’t particularly economical. But, the gas turbine millions and millions of automotive research dollars and barrels of ink proclaiming that it was the future of the automobile. 
 
Today, it’s the fuel cell.
 
The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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