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‘Alternative’ is the Key Word for Auto Industry

Boasting a hydrogen refueling station and a facility transformed into a support center for hydrogen-powered vehicles, Burbank finds itself at the center of a large-scale test of alternative fuel cross-over sport utility vehicles. General Motors put 100 of its Chevrolet Equinox vehicles on the road in three major markets this month in Project Driveway, a pilot program providing the vehicles to select people free of charge who in turn give detailed feedback on their experience. Hydrogen-powered vehicles use a fuel-cell to create electricity that drives a traction motor. The vehicles are hyped as an alternative to petroleum-fueled autos because they produce no emissions. “The only thing coming out the end of this is water vapor,” said Julie Beamer, director for fuel cell commercialization for General Motors. Burbank figures into the picture because of its hydrogen fueling station. New York City and Washington, D.C. were chosen for Project Driveway because they, too, had existing fueling stations. Burbank’s station is part of the Five Cities Hydrogen Program funded by the city and the Southcoast Air Quality Management District. A proposal is before city officials to upgrade the station to dispense more fuel and give increased range to the vehicles filling up there. While the city supports the upgrade, it remains in the planning stages, said Public Works Director Bonnie Teaford. First GM-branded Alt Fuel Vehicle The Equinox is the fourth-generation hydrogen vehicle made by GM. It replaces the HydroGen 3, a fleet of 12 minivans of which 8 were deployed in the U.S. The HydroGen 3 was the first hydrogen vehicle to operate directly from a fuel cell and not a battery. It was used for six months delivering packages for FedEx in Japan and traveled 10,000 kilometers across Europe in 2005, Beamer said. GM chose the Equinox for the test project because it is available around the world (10 vehicles will be tested in Germany) and the small SUV crossover is one of the fastest growing segments in the U.S. market. The vehicle is also the first alternative-fuel vehicle to receive a GM branding, all the better to catch the eye of prospective test drivers familiar with the Chevrolet name. “Branding this Chevrolet and getting feedback from mainstream, traditional Chevrolet buyers is very important to understand what we need to do to get this technology in volume into the marketplace,” Beamer said. In Project Driveway, the automaker targeted five groups to get behind the wheel of the Equinox the media; ; celebrities and influencers who get the word out about the capabilities of hydrogen technology; policy makers; high profile business partners to be announced later in the year; and mainstream drivers. Burbank resident Ben Lee falls into that last category. Lee, 29, won’t get his Equinox until January but a recent test drive has him excited. A banner ad at a GM Web site made him interested enough to fill out the survey form to see if he would be eligible to get one of the SUVs in his driveway. “Between pushing on the pedal and moving is almost instantaneous,” Lee said of the test drive he took with his wife. “It’s unlike any other experience.” The knowledge GM picked up from producing the late EV1 electric car translated into the design of the hydrogen vehicle. The battery technology is the same as is the electric drive traction system. A number of people who worked on the technical and marketing side of the EV1 are now part of Project Driveway, Beamer said. While the Equinox was designed in Warren, Mich., California has its share in producing and maintaining it. The high-power electronics and traction drive system were developed at a GM facility in Torrance. A training facility operated by the automaker in Burbank serves as the service center for the Equinox during the test run. Renovations were made to create several service bays that are hydrogen safe. Technicians and equipment have been brought in to work exclusively on the fuel cell technology. Hydrogen-powered vehicles are not without their detractors. Criticisms include the use of fossil fuels to make hydrogen; cost of the fuel cells; and that funding hydrogen fuel cell technology takes away resources from more proven alternative fuel methods. Still, GM finds its investment in the Equinox and its predecessors worthwhile because of the urgent need to find ways to decrease dependence on petroleum and reduce vehicle emissions. “With Project Driveway, GM is demonstrating its commitment to electrically-driven vehicles whether the source of the electricity comes from a lithium-ion battery or a hydrogen fuel cell as the answer for helping take the automobile out of the environmental debate,” said Dan Hancock, GM Powertrain vice president, global engineering.

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