General Motors, which has invested more than $2.5 billion in fuel-cell research, is showing off the fruits of that work—for the military. Don’t expect civilian cars and trucks, at least not yet. Instead, the company developed a silent-running underwater hydrogen drone for the Navy and is unveiling, in October, a military fuel-cell pickup truck based on the midsized Chevrolet Colorado for Army testing.
The fuel cells in both the drone and the truck are based on the file cabinet-sized system in GM’s Equinox-based test fleet, but Alan Adler, a spokesman for General Motors Advanced Technology, said the company is also quietly working with Honda on a downsized next-generation stack, due in 2020. But there’s no hurry. “The Equinox fuel-cell systems have proven more durable than we expected,” he said. “Some have 140,000 miles on them and are still doing well.”
The military has long been intrigued by fuel cell systems for vehicles, because they offer a combination of very quiet running, small heat signatures (making them hard to target), and easy refueling. GM has logged more than three million miles of experience through its Project Driveway with the Equinox vehicles.
“The fuel-cell hype cycle has come and gone, and now we’ve moved into a steadier state with something that feels much more real,” Adler said. “And we’re looking for opportunities for fuel cells that might not be considered traditional uses. Yes, the military, but other areas as well.”
Adler said the Colorado truck is “a demonstrator and a one-off, and it went from an idea to a real truck in just one year.” The vehicle will be shown by GM and the commissioning U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) at the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) meeting October 3 in Washington, D.C. The Army will evaluate it through 2017.
TARDEC has been working with GM since 2013, and the Army first deployed a fleet of 15 GM fuel-cell vehicles in 2012.
According to Paul Rogers, TARDEC’s director, “We expect the vehicle to be quiet in operation and ready to provide electricity generation for needs away from the vehicle. With fuel-cell technology advancing, it’s an ideal time to investigate its viability in extreme military-use conditions. Fuel-cell propulsion has low-end torque capability that is useful in an off-road environment.”
The Detroit Free Press last August floated the possibility that the Colorado’s power plant could be the basis for a new generation of Army tanks—TARDEC’s specialty. TARDEC declined comment on that or other aspects of the Colorado collaboration. “Unfortunately, I won’t have anything I can add to last month’s press release until after the vehicle is revealed by General Motors at AUSA,” said spokesman Doug Halleaux.
Meanwhile, GM said back in June that it is collaborating with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory on unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) equipped with a version of the Equinox fuel cell. “Fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems,” said Frank Herr, ONR’s department head for Ocean Battleship Sensing. “Reliability, high energy and cost effectiveness—all brought to us via GM partnering—are particularly important as the Navy looks to use UUVs as force multipliers.”
In its program of Large Displacement UUVs, the Navy is looking for at-sea devices with more than 60 days of endurance. The GM/Navy prototype can run on hydrogen generated from renewable sources, and it can be refueled in minutes. Water vapor is its only emission.