The woman behind the exhaust-free car

A GM engineer is eyeing a hydrogen-fueled car that would replace the internal-combustion engine.

Christine Sloane is accustomed to being surrounded by digital sketches of cars shaped like junebugs and SUVs one imagines Buck Rogers driving on Mars.

As a senior engineer at General Motors, Ms. Sloane is supposed to think about cars of the future. Specifically, she's trying to create a new generation of automobiles that are pollution free - and, in effect, render internal-combustion engines obsolete.

The vehicles are powered by mixing hydrogen (compressed under high pressure or in liquid form) with oxygen to generate a positive charge - a spark - that runs an electric motor.

It's gee-whiz stuff. Yet when Sloane is sitting at the dinner table with her college-aged sons, she hears a familiar refrain: "They say, 'Mom, would you please stop talking about fuel cells again,' " Sloane relates with a playful smirk. "They don't want to hear about 'the hydrogen economy' or 'hybrids' or anything else that we're moving toward. They want to hear about now."

Sloane's kids typify society's response to hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Not only do Americans lack a visual understanding of what switching to hydrogen-powered vehicles means, they have no verbal language to describe it. "I don't think the average consumer has a clue what the term 'hydrogen economy' means," Sloane says, adding that part of the major challenge is getting automakers to create a product before market demand exists.

Support from the White House

But some see the vehicle as one possible solution to issues such as global warming and America's dependence on foreign oil. Officials at GM say President Bush took a major step forward in elevating hydrogen-powered vehicles into public awareness when he called upon Congress in his State of the Union Address to allocate more than $1.5 billion for hydrogen car research and infrastructure development. The Senate Energy Committee recently authorized funding for that request, and GM has also announced separate pacts with German automaker BMW and oil-industry giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group to design refueling devices for hydrogen-powered cars.

Here at GM's research campus, where the buildings resemble a 1960s version of the 21st century (think of a cross between Disney's Tomorrowland and a set for the Jetsons), the automobile company has already invested over $1 billion in developing a hydrogen-powered sedan, appropriately called Hy-Wire. In Sloane's office overlooking a reflecting pool, pictures of her sons - and some of the crafts they made at summer camps - share desk space with stacks of research papers on hydrogen and advanced technology. Mathematical equations outlining new ideas for hydrogen storage on a whiteboard are tempered by potted plants and flowers. At one time, some of these very same boards brimmed with the promise of another GM project, the electric car.

But the auto company recently formally scrapped its EV1 electric car, unveiled with great hype two years ago and praised by environmentalists. But that fanfare didn't translate into sales. The vehicle's flaw was that the battery had to be plugged in to recharge every 100 miles.

Skeptics wonder whether hydrogen-powered vehicles will prove any more viable than the electric car. Furthermore, they're quick to point out the irony that it's SUV sales - vehicles that eliminated steady gains that had been made in average US fuel economy and curbing CO2 emissions - that are shoring up GM's profit columns. Still, Sloane insists, the company is committed to promoting the hydrogen car.

"We are a conservative company," Sloane says, "but when you look at what we do ideologically, we are idealists, GM more than anybody. Nobody else got out in front and said we will make electric vehicles because it's the right thing to do. In fact, we got hurt doing it. Now, with hydrogen technology, you could say 'Here we go again.' "

Perks of the job: test driving cars

As part of her assignment, Sloane test drives models slated to come off assembly lines. She enjoys driving sports cars, and uses company SUVs and pickups to do her hauling chores, but admits that when she has time, she prefers to pedal a mountain bike. When Hy-Wire becomes available commercially, Sloane says she wants to own one.

Although GM in the months ahead plans on rolling out of a fleet of hybrid vehicles, including SUVs that run on gas and electricity to serve as a transition between oil and hydrogen, the company's goal is for an affordable version of Hy-Wire to hit showrooms by 2010. Five years after that, GM aspires to have produced 1 million hydrogen-power vehicles. The key may lie in marketing the vehicle as the cutting edge of social fashion.

A commercially viable car?

For now at least, there's just one problem: It costs $5 million to manufacture a single HyWire model.

People are conscientious and green up to the point they have to spend money, "then all kinds of other values competing with their belief in protecting the environment come into play," says Sloane, whose formal title is director of policy and programs at GM's Environmental Policy Center.

But Sloane, who possesses the demeanor of a charismatic professor and is by turns tough, engaging, and willing to spar, says that technology takes time to perfect. She should know. The admitted science junkie has been involved with developing GM's Precept, a concept car that gets 80 miles per gallon, something that skeptics in the early 1990s deemed impossible.

Now, too, there are skeptics. Some claim hydrogen is too costly to mass produce. A recent report by the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, meanwhile, stated that hybrid vehicles hold more promise for reducing greenhouse gases over the next 15 years than hydrogen vehicles.

General Motors is betting that they're wrong.

"It's okay to be innovative and have great ideas but they have to come at a time when they make sense commercially," says Sloane. "The fuel cell, hydrogen economy is a compelling vision. We can get there."

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