By Jeff Green/ Bloomberg
Shanghai: General Motors Corp. displayed a fuel-cell version of its plug-in electric car in Shanghai on 20 April as it tries to spark Chinese support for the technology.
The latest version, a modification of a Chevrolet Volt model shown in Detroit in January, would charge at an electrical outlet for the first 20 miles of driving, said Larry Burns, head of GM’s advanced engineering. After that, it would use a fuel cell technology that converts hydrogen to electricity and emits only water to travel up to 300 miles, he said.
“It’s no accident that we are showing this vehicle in China,” Burns said in an interview on 19 April. “We are looking for the right density of customers, density of vehicles and density of fueling stations to make this work.”
GM is seeking government support in Asia, Europe and the U.S. to help make such vehicles a reality. The effort involves subsidies for the technology, infrastructure for fueling stations, and incentives for owners to buy the vehicles.
Pressure on automakers to develop such models is growing as gasoline prices rise and governments crack down on fuel use and curb emissions that cause global warming. Burns has promised GM chief executive Rick Wagoner that he will have a fuel-cell model that is commercially competitive with gasoline by the end of 2009. An average gasoline car costs about $50 (Rs2,102) per kilowatt to operate, he said.
GM also wants to narrow a gap with Toyota Motor Corp., which has sold hybrid-electric models since 1997 and is viewed as the leading maker of environmentally friendly vehicles.
With available technology, GM could manage to launch by 2009 a demonstration fleet of fuel-cell powered Chevy Volts in China, said Ronald Hwang, a vehicles analyst in the San Francisco office of Natural Resources Defense Council. “The technology is available, you could integrate a fuel-cell into a Chevy Volt.”
Manhattan Beach, Berlin
In addition to China, Berlin and California are also contenders for a concentration of GM’s future fleet of fuel-cell vehicles, Burns said.
The automaker will test a fleet of more than 100 models this year and in 2008 in the U.S., Asia and Europe. In the next phase, sometime after 2009, GM hopes to have a fleet of at least 1,000, he said.
“We’re trying to identify the right locations that can make this happen,” Burns said.
China has the advantage of a centrally controlled government that can roll out policy unilaterally, he said. With the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Exposition, China has been talking to the automaker about how fuel-cell models might burnish its environmental image, he said.
If Shanghai were to build 124 hydrogen filling stations and Beijing to add 90 at a GM-estimated cost of $1 million each, either city could have enough locations to support a hydrogen fleet, Burns said.
Even a demonstration fleet of 1,000 cars on China’s roads would have little effect on the country’s oil imports and emission of global warming gases, Hwang said. “The fastest, cheapest way to have an impact is to improve fuel economy on GM’s current fleet of cars,” he said.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s environmental initiatives and state’s pledge to have hydrogen fuel stations make it a top candidate, Burns said. Berlin is attractive because of its central role in the European Union’s environmental plans, he said.
California currently has 24 hydrogen stations in operation and 14 more planned, the California Fuel Cell Partnership said this week. A total of 179 fuel-cell vehicles from GM, Toyota, Ford Motor Co. and other automakers have been evaluated in the program, the world’s largest for the technology, since it began in 1999.