Chevrolet’s Colorado ZH2 Pickup Debuts at the Army’s Trade Show

Cars, Featured  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

WASHINGTON, DC—The fuel-cell Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, although based on the civilian truck, is a fearsome beast—6.5 feet tall and more than seven feet wide. GM calls it “the most extreme off-road-capable fuel-cell-powered electric vehicle ever from General Motors.”

Charles Freese

Charles Freese of GM: “It was almost begging to be done.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

With 37-inch BF Goodrich tires and 11.8 inches of ground clearance, this camouflage warrior, introduced at the huge Association of the United States Army (AUSA) trade show in Washington, appears to be a cousin to the Hummers that are all over the hall. And it’s right at home with the huge, armored Oshkosh Defense Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) that’s replacing the Humvee as the military’s go-to vehicle.

It’s been 50 years (almost to the day) since GM fielded its first hydrogen-powered vehicle, the 1966 Electrovan—with fuel-cell components taking up every nook and cranny. According to GM, “After the GM Electrovan was built, tested and shown off to journalists in 1966, the project was scrapped, largely because it was cost-prohibitive. The platinum used in the fuel cell was enough to ‘buy a whole fleet of vans’ and there was absolutely no supporting hydrogen infrastructure in place at that time.”

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2

The fuel-cell stack is borrowed from the Chevrolet Equinox test fleet, but a much-improved later iteration would go into any production vehicle. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Half a century later, we haven’t completely solved that infrastructure problem—only Los Angeles in the U.S. has a robust hydrogen network—but we’ve made loads of progress with the fuel cell, which no longer requires a king’s ransom worth of platinum for use as a catalyst. In fact, the stack has shrunk considerably—without losing any power—since GM introduced put its first modern iteration into the 119-vehicle Project Driveway fleet of Chevy Equinoxes in 2006. From 80 grams of the precious metal in the Generation Zero, it will require less than 12 in the Generation Two. The latest stack is also a third the size and mass of Generation Zero, but produces the same power output.

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2

The interior is little changed from a production Colorado. (Jim Motavalli photo)

To be clear, it’s the earlier Generation Zero stack from the Equinox test fleet that’s in this Colorado ZH2. According to Charles Freese, executive director of GM’s fuel-cell operations, that was done because the earlier stack is proven in millions of miles of testing, and also is certified to operate with the hydrogen tanks. But any production Army Colorado would have the latest, more efficient technology. The goal is a vehicle with 300 to 400 miles of range, though as shown the Colorado offers less than that (142 miles estimated).

GM Electrovan

Both the 1966 Electrovan (seen here) and the Colorado ZH2 were built in 10-month crash programs. (GM photo)

Freese said the fuel-cell pickup (based on a stretched Colorado chassis) combines the company’s well-honed off-road capabilities with a zero-emission powertrain—neatly lining up with the Army’s priorities. “It was almost begging to be done,” he said.

The Colorado is heavy, weighing more than 6,000 pounds, but it’s very capable and can carry up to 1,400 pounds (though towing isn’t an option). Top speed is around 60 mph. The rear-mounted Quantum hydrogen tanks—built up from many layers of carbon fiber—hold 4.2 kilograms. There is just one 250-horsepower electric traction motor, and a 16-kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack provides backup.

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2

The Colorado ZH2 was first shown as a scale model. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The military advantages are pretty clear—without an internal-combustion engine, the Colorado has a very hard-to-detect heat signature, and it’s ultra-quiet, too. “When our military vehicles arrive at a forward base, they typically broadcast, ‘We’re here,’” said Bruce Butrico, the Army’s chief engineer for the Colorado project. Hydrogen, 14 times lighter than air, has no color or toxicity, and its energy by weight is 2.8 times more than gasoline.

The Colorado can generate 25 kilowatts of continuous external AC power (120 or 240 volts) and 50 kilowatts peak. Want more? The byproduct of hydrogen fuel cells is clean water, and the Colorado can generate two gallons of drinkable H2O per hour.

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 takeoff power

The Colorado will be subjected to rigorous testing at military bases, including Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. An advantage, inspected here by military officers, is the ability to generate 25 kilowatts of external power. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Refilling—at 100 miles per minute, maybe five minutes total—isn’t quite as fast as with diesel (150 miles per minute), but it’s quite a bit faster than battery vehicles, even when a Supercharger is used (six miles per minute). Yes, the Army wants to simplify with just one fuel, but hydrogen can easily be made from the diesel Jet Propulsion-8 (JP-8) that is standard military issue.

The Army will get its Colorado—there’s only one—in early 2017, and it will be evaluated in a rigorous test program at several military bases, including Forts Bragg, Carson and Benning.

Taking custody is the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), headed by Dr. Paul Rogers. “We’re excited about the potential this vehicle offers our men and women in uniform in both warfighting and having a positive effect on the environment,” Rogers said. “It’s close to $4 billion that GM has invested, and the Army isn’t going to invest $4 billion in an alternative power source. But we can come in and reap the benefits of that technical innovation.”

There were no drives of the Colorado, but the press was granted access to the interior—which was surprisingly unchanged from the production car, though Recaro seats and racing-type harnesses had been added. Both front and rear locking differentials are offered, and the cupholders, stereo and auto climate control were intact.

Only the front half of the Colorado has camouflage paint; the back end looks “civilian.” One GM observer noted that this gives the unique test vehicle a “War and Peace” theme.


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