How I almost wrecked a $3.5 million car

Driving in the future reminds me a lot of driving in the past.

You'd think General Motors' Hy-wire - a fuel-cell concept car - would rewrite the book on driving, with itsfuturistic fuel and its video-game controls. But I haven't driven something this different - and difficult - since the time I sat behind the wheel of a well-preserved 1908 Ford Model T.

For starters, there is no traditional steering wheel in this $3.5 million marvel of technology - a feature that, it turns out, will make this test drive unlike any other.

What it does have, though, is a hydrogen-fuel system that emits only water and heat, an environmental benefit that many hope will make this baby the car of the future.

Of course, even optimists concede you won't see hydrogen-powered cars on the streets before 2010. Pessimists say it may be never.

For the moment, we have to content ourselves with concept cars. So when GM brought its Hy-wire to the Boston area last month, who could resist the chance to take the nonwheel?

The doors on Hy-wire's big body swing forward in front and backward in the back. Sidle into the cockpit, and the foam-framed nylon mesh seat feels hard and soft in all the wrong places. You do get to choose your seat, however.

The driver can sit on either the left or right side, behind a handle that looks like an airplane control yoke and slides right or left on a track. Even stranger, the chassis, called the "skateboard," holds so much mechanical gear (like an old-fashioned car) there's no room for foot wells. Your legs stick straight out with your feet on an adjustable footrest.

On this sunny spring day, GM has brought the Hy-wire to a Boston-area parking lot to let reporters test-drive it. Since it cost $3.5 million to build - and controlling the car is, shall we say, an adventure - the company wasn't about to let us drive it on our own. So beside me sits GM engineer Juergen Reinheimer, holding a Game Boy-like screen with four buttons as override controls.

I wait for his OK and press the forward button. But I can't step on the gas. The Hy-wire has no gas or brake pedals. Instead, I twist the handle of the steering "wheel" to accelerate, as you would on a motorcycle. (To stop, just squeeze the steering-wheel grip.)

A faint hum emanates from under the chassis. As I twist the accelerator, we slowly start across the lot. So far, so good. My confidence - and cockiness - build.

One challenge to the Hy-wire is that it doesn't have enough feel. While there's some resistance in the steering wheel, there is little in the brakes and none in the "gas." Without that feedback, it's hard to know when you're going too fast or braking too hard. Another challenge: There's no hand-over-hand steering. Rather, how fast you turn is governed electronically. The faster you go, the less steering you get.

These drawbacks combine to challenge novice Hy-wire drivers when they try to change direction. I'm going slowly enough to negotiate the first few turns. But at one point, I steer left and fail to notice the accelerator still twisted too far in my hand. The Hy-wire is going too fast to avoid the curb. I squeeze the brakes in a panic. Mr. Reinheimer sits frozen next to me. He's apparently used to this.

The so-called hydrogen economy represented by Hy-wire has gained a lot of attention since President Bush announced the $1.7 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative.

But whether anything like the Hy-wire is ever built on a commercial scale depends more on whether society can reinvent its energy usage than whether General Motors can reinvent the car.

Fuel cells create electricity through a chemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen and produces water and electricity. Unlike internal combustion engines, fuel cells must have H2. Their only emissions are water and heat.

By themselves, hydrogen fuel-cell cars are about twice as efficient as today's gasoline internal combustion cars. However, other energy sources must be used to produce the hydrogen. Because the gas rarely occurs by itself in nature, it must be extracted from other elements. Some fuel-cell cars carry reformers that distill the gas out of methanol or gasoline. Not Hy-wire.

Sandwiched on its 18-inch "skateboard" between the floor and the bottom of the car are a cylindrical tank to store hydrogen, an air compressor to feed oxygen to the fuel cell, the 75-kilowatt fuel-cell stack, and the electric motor. (Almost any body can be bolted to the chassis.)

The Hy-wire requires a refueling truck loaded with hydrogen. In this case, hydrogen is produced from natural gas, one of the most readily available sources to produce hydrogen.

Another source is water. In an ideal world, hydrogen could be separated from water using only renewable energy. But if today's electric grid, powered mostly by coal and natural gas, is used to produce hydrogen from water, overall energy consumption per mile would be 25 percent greater than today's gas cars.

So far no one knows how expensive hydrogen would be in the future. Hydrogen could cost the equivalent of $15 a gallon of gasoline, experts say. But the US Energy Department aims to develop technology that would bring down the costs to $3 per gallon (gasoline equivalent) by 2005. By 2010, the goal is $1.50 a gallon.

In the meantime, hybrid electric and diesel cars look like good options for saving fuel without costing a fortune.

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