September 14, 2009

Anna Wells, Editor, IMPO

I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in the article I recently read on GM’s 1 million milestone in the company’s fuel cell test fleet vehicle experiment.

While this is an impressive feat, I didn’t find the facts as uplifting as I’d hoped.

Considering this technology has been tabled for ages based on infrastructure and cost issues, it was less than optimistic to see the latest hurdles… infrastructure and cost issues. Worse, the cost issues are completely indefinable, considering the auto companies won’t discuss what these current prototypes cost, or what we can anticipate on a larger scale.

The article instead highlighted “user acceptance” type issues—as in, the driver’s level of comfortability in using the new technology. Perhaps I’m being cynical here, but doesn’t the user’s very involvement in this test program indicate a certain level of faith and interest in the success of hydrogen? I think it’s a foregone conclusion that these folks are onboard.

What I don’t think is a foregone conclusion is how we plan to make it cost effective and business savvy for existing fuel station owners to replace a few gas pumps with hydrogen. Or what happens when—as was relayed anecdotally in the article—a user of the 168-mile capacity unit stalls a few miles from the nearest refilling station.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully support this technology, and would love to see it succeed. I guess my problem lies with these pat-on-the-back type sound bites that temporarily blur the larger picture. We have a long way to go here, and a million mile mark is only a small piece of a large, highly complex puzzle.

I think now is a good time for companies like GM to really step up their marketing efforts to address the FAQs that most folks have: Now that’s we’re a million miles in, what more do we know about the viability of this technology? How do we take this from the test phase to the roads, and will it be cost effective? It’s nice to see headlines about testing phase mileage, and I know this is a necessary part of the research, but in order to gain public support, we need more. Otherwise this idea gets shoved in the areas of people’s brains reserved to fuzzy, feel-good ideas that never gain shape outside of their theoretical concepts.

Someday I hope we’ll all be waving to one another from the lanes of a hydrogen highway, but envisioning it with my own tools is a poor recreation. I’d rather have GM paint me a picture.