Honk if you fancy my zero-emissions chevy
If you’ve ever had British wine you could understand why Prince Charles is running his Aston on the stuff. Those kinds of things are interesting but they’re really not viable. It’s like those people who run a car on vegetable oil that they get from fast-food restaurants. It’s fine until the fast-food restaurant goes: “Hey, wait a minute. We’ve had 10 people today getting our free vegetable oil. Oh, it’s $10 a gallon now.” Then the whole thing disappears. There’s not an infinite supply of British wine or vegetable oil.
Hydrogen, however, is the third most plentiful element on the planet. I know people will say you can’t harvest it efficiently but at the turn of the last century you went to the chemist and you bought gasoline by the quart and it was cumbersome and expensive and hard to get, so I think it’s something to shoot for.
Right now hydrogen sounds like 200 years in the future but Americans like to be given a goal and then try to reach it. I remember 15 years ago there was a hydrogen car. It was huge . . . the fuel cell was as big as the car itself. It was literally a tractor pulling its fuel-cell unit behind it. Now a fuel cell fits into a conventional SUV such as the Chevy Equinox I have been driving for 5,000 miles. Within a few years I think you’ll find it will be no bigger than a conventional engine and gas tank.
The last time I tested a hydrogen car for these pages, it was the BMW hydrogen-powered 7-series. Well, the BMW is a conventional car that runs on liquid hydrogen. So you sort of use internal combustion technology and then you run liquid hydrogen. The disadvantage is the hydrogen has to be kept at 441 degrees below zero (-263C).
The Equinox is essentially an electric car that runs on a hydrogen fuel cell, which is basically a reverse battery that makes its own electricity.
In practical terms you might say the BMW is easier to live with right now because you have 150 years of internal combustion technology that’s been perfected. What BMW has done is just reinvented the fuel source, whereas the fuel cell has sort of reinvented the car, I guess you might say. They both have their advantages. And they both have their disadvantages.
This is a way more radical piece of technology because it uses a fuel cell. Environmentally it’s a lot more cutting edge. You know, for new technology to succeed, it has to be at least equal to existing technology. And this fuel cell car is certainly equal to any type of car you have now – it’s just held back by the hydrogen infrastructure.
You could back this car into your garage, shut the door and sit in it with the engine running and you’d starve to death before anything would happen to you. There are zero emissions.
There’s something fascinating about leaving the place exactly as you found it. I am always amazed that they can go to a lake in Sweden and they can test the water and find that 4,000 years ago iron was smelted just because there’s enough particles left. With the hydrogen car, it’s zero. I mean, it’s zero. You can go to a place, run the car and leave, and there’s no sort of evidence that it was ever there.
What will happen in the real world is I think the internal combustion engine will certainly be here for the rest of my lifetime and the next generation’s lifetime but you will see more and more vehicles like this and you’ll gradually be weaned off it. You’ll use your fuel cell or electric vehicle for your day-to-day running around, and your Corvette, or your MG or your Triumph or whatever it is, will be used as a weekend vehicle. I mean, how much of driving is actually fun anyway? For most people, driving is just commuting.
As a vehicle to drive, there is nothing on the Equinox you have to adapt to. Your range is not quite equal to that of a conventional car. You can go about 170 miles on a full tank, I’ve found, versus 225 in a gas car. But that’s pretty good. We’ve put 5,000 miles on that car in maybe five months. I take it to work, I take it to club dates within a 50-mile zone around LA. I’m never that far away. I’m never more than 30 to 40 miles from a hydrogen station.
With 170 miles I can go anywhere I want to go and if I come back home I’m never more than 15 miles from a hydrogen station so it’s not bad. I don’t find myself planning – but I wouldn’t drive it to San Francisco. A fill-up from empty takes about 25 to 30 minutes. But that’s not the car’s fault. That’s the infrastructure’s fault. As soon as tanks are in place that can fill the cell to a pressure of 10,000psi quicker, that time will drop.
The chassis, I think, is purpose-built. I don’t think it’s adapted from anything. These cars are something like $800,000 apiece because they’re prototypes. I don’t feel nervous driving it around.
It is an SUV. It blends right in with all the other cars out there. With the exception of saying “Fuel cell” on it, and the bubble shapes on the side, nobody would know the difference.
I’ve found driving it that I have become even more appealing to women. For example, we were just talking to this very attractive redhead woman at the garden centre where we took these pictures, and I said: “Look, it’s zero emissions”, and she couldn’t have been more excited. She asked questions, she wanted to know and suddenly she seemed to take more of an interest in me because I was driving it.
Fuel cells, like Priuses, are sort of the Ferraris of the next generation. Women like men who seem environmentally conscious, so if you have one of these I think you’ll find yourself making a big impression on women.
When I would drive it to the Tonight Show, occasionally a male guest would inquire about the car. But almost every female guest asked about it. I had Kyra Sedgwick on. “What is your car? That really doesn’t pollute? It’s zero?” That’s the figure that gets people. Not 0.001 or 0.009. Zero. They ask you questions – what’s it like to drive in and when can I buy one and are they available now? I think a lot of stars would buy one if they could get one now. Those gas-belching Prius-owners seem very interested in it too. It does seem to be the next step past the hybrid. The hybrid is an excellent stopgap measure but it needs two power plants. This is essentially a self-contained unit.
When I told the people at GM I’d put 5,000 miles on it, they couldn’t have been more thrilled. “Oh yeah, keep driving it, keep a notebook, let us know if anything breaks.” But nothing’s broken. Nothing’s happened to it.