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Conference or Auto Show?

There are aspects of the TED conference that feel more like an auto show than a technology conference. In the “simulcast lounge” – a huge room beneath the actual TED stage, where those of us who blog the conference tend to congregate alongside everyone else who lacks a “stage priority” badge – there are gleaming cars on polished wood platforms. This year, in keeping with the theme of climate panic energy efficiency, the cars include an all-electric Tesla roadster, a hybrid Ford that can be plugged into the wall as well as a Lexus that might well be technically impressive, but I never bothered to look at.

Waiting for a session to start yesterday, I was approached by a man whose ease in striking up a conversation could mean only one thing: he was a car salesman. Specifically, he was a PR representative for GM who’d seen my “press” badge and wanted me to drive a hydrogen-powered Chevy. (TED, bless their hearts, occasionally issues press badges to bloggers. I wanted a little white card to put in my hat brim as well, but settled for haunting the bar with MSM reporters and reveling in our newfound cameraderie.)


The beauty of hydrogen powered vehicles is that they don’t produce any direct emissions – the tailpipe of a hydrogen vehicle should release some water vapor and nothing else. The problem with hydrogen-powered vehicles… well, there’s a couple. One, you’ve got to produce hydrogen, which uses energy. Your tailpipe may not be releasing carbon, but if the electricity you use to reform hydrogen from natural gas comes from a coal-fired power plant, it’s possible that you might be releasing more carbon than from burning gasoline cleanly. And you’ve somehow got to get the hydrogen to your vehicle, which requires an entirely novel fueling infrastructure. And then there’s that whole Hindenberg thing.

Actually, that exploding Zeppelin problem had to do with the fact that hydrogen was trapped in an envelope – the balloon skin – rather than being released into the environment. If the 8kg of hydrogen under my feet in the Chevy Sequel escaped, it would likely dissipate into the atmosphere quickly enough to avoid explosion. Or that’s what the technician sitting in the passenger seat, monitoring the performance of the fuel cell, told me. I didn’t light a cigarette to test. He also assured me that the tanks were literally bulletproof and had been stress- and crash-tested extensively.

The answers my GM friends had regarding hydrogen production and distribution were less reassuring. There’s only two Sequel prototypes in the world – I’m guessing there’s probably a single fueling station they use to keep the vehicles full. The next generation of the prototype will involve a hundred vehicles in three US cities, which probably means three hydrogen stations. But rolling the vehicle out on a commercial scale will require the conversion of thousands of fuel stations and development of a hydrogen supply chain. “A country building new infrastructure, like China, might decide to build hydrogen into their fuel system.” That’s true – but it seems to acknowledge that there are going to be huge barriers before most Americans are driving hydrogen cars.

My co-pilot, monitoring the fuel cell of the Sequel.

What’s cool about the Sequel, my co-pilot tells me, is that it can travel 300 miles on an 8kg tank of hydrogen, and that it can go zero to sixty in under ten seconds, two metrics that are considered essential within the auto industry before consumers will accept these vehicles. (The Tesla goes zero to sixty in four seconds, but it costs slightly more than the GDP of Lesotho and is being marketed to a different audience.) Driving four square blocks of Monterey, I didn’t really get to test the acceleration, but I can report that the Sequel feels like… well, an ordinary car. Specifically, a large, characteristically chunky American minivan-ish car.

That, in turn, is pretty remarkable, since this vehicle has about as much in common with my beloved Toyota pickup truck as my laptop does with my trusty wooden slide rule. There’s no physical linkage between the steering wheel and the axles of the car – it’s entirely steer by wire. Look under the hood and you won’t find very much beyond an airconditioning unit – the power is provided by motors on the hubs of each wheel. The hydrogen’s under the driver’s feet, the battery array under the back seat. There’s basically nothing on the car that my mechanic, Ron, would want to put a wrench to – even the climate controls are touchscreens. (Which raises another infrastructure question – when you put a few thousand of these on the road, who gets to repair them? And will they be auto mechanics or computer technicians?)

There’s lots to be excited about with the Sequel. The basic platform – “the skateboard”, as my copilot calls it – could be used underneath any number of body types, potentially allowing me to drive a full-sized pickup without being perpetually overwhelmed by guilt. (I drive a much smaller truck and still feel bad about it.) And if GM partners with companies making home hydrogen reformers, there’s the intriguing possibility of turning your own garage into a gas station, and plugging your house into your car as a backup generator if the power goes out. (When I asked the expected lifespan of the vehicle, the answer was “10,000 operating hours.” I started translating into miles, but Mr. GM pointed out that these vehicles might well “operate” as power plants as frequently as they serve as vehicles.)

I can’t say that my drive made me want to go out and buy a Sequel, even if one were for sale. But when I pulled into the lot at the conference center, another driver pulled up alongside me and started raving: “Is that a production vehicle? What the heck is that? That’s one badass looking Chevy!” Telling him that it was one of two in the world and that it ran on hydrogen left his jaw on the floor of his vehicle. I hope Mr. GM gave him a drive as well – I probably should have given him the press badge.

Lindsay Brook of the New York Times – who actually reviews cars for a living – has a detailed report on driving a Sequel for longer than five minutes.