Skip to main content

General Motors has been working on hydrogen fuel cell cars for 50 years

gm hydrogen fuel cell 50 years electrovan 50th anniversary
General Motors
Hydrogen-fueled electric cars? Great idea. General Motors has spent $2.5 billion working on it for 50 years and still has not figured out a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way to make it work, according to Wired.

In October 1966, the month and year Neal Diamond had his first U.S. top-10 single, Cherry, Cherry, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill creating the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed, GM introduced the Electrovan. An electric vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, the Electrovan had room for two people, weighed 7,100 pounds, and lumbered from zero to 60 in 30 seconds. But it ran and its only emission was water — if you don’t count the process of producing the hydrogen fuel stored in an onboard tank.

The Electrovan was never a serious product. It was a technology demonstration. A team of about 200 people worked from January to October that year, working three shifts, building a vehicle for the future. Remember, this was almost three years before Neil Armstrong placed the first human foot on the moon. The future was in science, in chemistry, and in technology.

The work on hydrogen fuel cells continues. GM is in talks with Honda about joining forces in fuel cell production. GM and the United States Army have announced a prototype hydrogen fuel cell vehicle based on the Chevrolet Colorado truck. Honda, Hyundai, Volkswagon, Toyota, and others are developing fuel cell vehicles.

As Wired points out, however, there are two major obstacles to advancing fuel cell vehicles. “There’s no real infrastructure to get the fuel around the country and into cars. And while hydrogen’s the most abundant element in the universe, making it into a useable fuel often involves natural gas — hardly a zero-emissions process.”

So fuel cell technology development goes on, but the excitement around electric vehicles is much greater. Large automotive companies with medium-sized-country level budgets may be able to pursue multiple technologies at the same time, but the public usually is able to get its collective mind around only one new technology at a time. For now, at least, fuel cells are in a distant second place.

Editors' Recommendations

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends Contributing Editor Bruce Brown is a member of the Smart Homes and Commerce teams. Bruce uses smart devices…
Hydrogen was the fuel of tomorrow, so what happened?

Just a few short years ago, hydrogen and battery electric vehicles were both excitedly vying to become the future of the automobile. Expert punditry was split on which alternative would emerge triumphant and save us all from our fossil-fuel overlords.

The Japanese automakers in particular have always been major proponents of hydrogen fuel as the perfect replacement for gasoline and diesel fuels, and as late as 2006 Ford and GM were debuting hydrogen car concepts, with BMW carrying the torch up to 2015. Currently, there are three hydrogen fuel cell cars available for lease or purchase: The Toyota Mirai, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, and the Hyundai NEXO.

Read more
Toyota’s E-volution continues with 2021 Mirai and 2021 RAV4 Plugin
toyotas e volution continues with 2021 mirai and rav4 plugin marai unwrapped

Underscoring its commitment to alternative fuel vehicles, Toyota revealed the second-generation, 2021 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) at an event held at Greensboro, North Carolina's Proximity Hotel. Toyota also used the occasion to tease images of the 2021 RAV4 plug-in hybrid and to introduce an extended 10-year, 150,000-mile battery warranty for the model year 2020 hybrid, plug-in, and fuel cell electric vehicles.

Toyota held what it termed an E-volution media drive at the Greensboro location because the Proximity Hotel was the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-certified hotel. LEED Platinum certification is the highest recognition level for whole-building design and operational sustainability.

Read more
Next-gen Toyota Mirai confirmed despite continuing issues with hydrogen tech
dt cars top stories of 2015 2016 toyota mirai

Despite low sales owing to the slow rollout of hydrogen infrastructure, the Toyota Mirai fuel cell car isn't going away. A next-generation Mirai will bow in 2020, Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said at a hydrogen conference in Tokyo, according to Automotive News Europe.

The current-generation Mirai first appeared in 2014, so it's about time for a new version. The Mirai was the first modern hydrogen fuel cell car intended to be sold in large numbers, but infrastructure hasn't caught up to Toyota's ambitious plans. With so few places to fill up with hydrogen, United States sales are currently limited to California. Toyota sold just 1,700 cars in the U.S. last year.

Read more