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Fifty years on, the GM Electrovan foretold a future that never was (but still might be)

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Cutaway rendering of the GM Electrovan. Image courtesy General Motors.

Though it looked like a normal GMC Handi-Van from the outside, the hydrogen fuel cell powered Electrovan, introduced to the public 50 years ago this month, was anything but conventional. Representing both the first fuel cell vehicle and the first transfer of such technology from NASA to industry, the Electrovan was a bold (and expensive) step for GM, one that might yet pay dividends in the coming years.

In simple terms, and as its name implies, the Electrovan was an electric car. Instead of relying on storage batteries to deliver current to an electric motor, the Electrovan produced its own electricity via an onboard chemical reaction involving hydrogen, oxygen and potassium hydroxide. Unlike internal combustion vehicles, the sole byproducts of this fuel cell process were heat and water vapor, which might have made such a vehicle ideal in the eyes of environmentalists.

GM Electrovan

The Electrovan at the GM Heritage Center. Photo by Daniel Strohl.

Except that the Electrovan had a few drawbacks as well. The hydrogen and oxygen used in the fuel cell process were both in liquid form, requiring storage at sub-zero temperatures, while the potassium hydroxide electrolyte solution was highly corrosive. The weight of the Electrovan, including the storage tanks, 32 fuel cell modules, electric motor and controller, added up to roughly 7,100 pounds, about two tons more than the production GMC Handi-Van on which it was based.

Accidents in testing, while rare, reportedly did occur, and one rupture of the hydrogen storage tank (perhaps from over-pressurization) scattered debris over a quarter-mile area. After this, on-the-road Electrovan testing was limited to GM property, far away from public roads. Additional testing was carried out in the laboratory, with range and top speed testing done on a chassis dynamometer.

The goal of the Electrovan program was to produce a fuel cell powered vehicle that rivaled its internal combustion equivalent in range and performance. Despite the best efforts of the 200-plus employees assigned to the project, the best the Electrovan could do was a range between 100 and 150 miles, a top speed of 70 MPH and a 0-60 MPH time in the 30 second range. When the fuel cell vehicle was shown to the public at an October 1966 Parade of Progress exhibit, motoring journalists of the day were prohibited from driving, as the Electrovan was deemed too complex (and, potentially, too dangerous) to hand over the keys.

Even GM understood that the Electrovan was likely an evolutionary dead end, stating in a period film that liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen were too expensive and too impractical to fuel automobiles. The platinum used in the fuel cells also made commercial production cost-prohibitive, but GM built Electrovan for an entirely different reason: to identify the potential problems created when fuel cells were adapted for vehicle use.

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2

The experimental Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, a fuel cell powered vehicle set to begin testing with U.S. Army in 2017. Photo courtesy Chevrolet.

Decades later, GM is again working on hydrogen fuel cells for vehicular use, partnering with Honda on the development of this technology. In 2017, the U.S. Army will begin testing a heavily modified Chevrolet Colorado pickup, the Colorado ZH2, powered by a removable hydrogen fuel cell assembly that can also provide electric power to remote bases. As for the Colorado ZH2 itself, Chevrolet claims the truck will deliver near-silent operation and a reduced thermal signature, while producing only water for emissions.