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Hydrogen-powered road test

When you turn the ignition key in your car and nothing happens, the first thing most of us do is get out and check the battery.

Well, if you happen to be sitting behind the wheel of General Motors’ hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinox, don’t bother. Just wait for the red light on the dashboard to turn green — that’s the only way you are going to know that this car of the future is ready to roll.

We were invited this week to test drive one of the 100 fuel-cell powered Equinox cars GM has hand-built at the General Motors Fuel Cell Activities Center in Honeoye Falls, NY, a few miles from Rochester.

We have to admit we had some trepidation about taking a ride in the Equinox prototype. The last time we inspected a hydrogen-powered vehicle, we were looking at some grainy photos of the Hindenburg’s ill-fated arrival in Lakehurst, NJ.

Our jitters were not eased when, immediately upon arrival at the Honeoye Falls facility, GM execs seated us in a conference room a few feet from the front door, pointed to the door, and said ”this is the fastest evacuation route if something happens.” They didn’t tell us what ”something” might be, but we had a vague feeling it might create a cloud shaped like a mushroom.

All these concerns evaporated when we pulled out of GM’s parking lot and headed up the road into a beautiful fall afternoon in the Genesee Valley. Also evaporating was the Equinox’s ”exhaust” — the only thing the car emits out of its tail vents (no need for pipes) is a fine mist of water vapor.

We are pleased to report that this Chevy of the future — disguised as a run-of-the-mill SUV crossover to limit cultural shock — is a fine cruising machine. GM says it’s as safe as any other car on the road (Jay Leno is driving one around Hollywood), and when we put it to the test on a local hill it accelerated effortlessly. The fuel-cell design features a single-gear drivetrain, which lets the driver power up to 100 mph without so much as a shudder.

Most amazing of all was something that was completely missing — noise. The only sound coming out of the car was the quiet hum of the tires on the road. Add an eight-speaker stereo and you’re in vehicular heaven.

We jokingly told our GM guide that we were tempted to try and receive the first hydrogen-powered speeding ticket. Never mind, he replied: he’s already been pulled over by the local cops, but all they wanted to do was look under the hood.

OK, here’s the catch:

– A hydrogen-powered Equinox only has a range of 160 miles before you need to refill the 4-liter hydrogen gas tank.

– There are only a handful of hydrogen gas stations in the United States.

– Each Equinox prototype currently costs about $100,000 to build, and the price won’t come down until GM starts mass-producing them.

– GM can’t tool up to produce hydrogen fuel-cell cars without a massive infusion of government funds, and there isn’t going to be a market for them without a system of hydrogen gas stations.

– Exxon and the other gas-station giants, currently dragging their feet on putting in ethanol pumps, aren’t even thinking about distributing hydrogen.

Somebody once asked: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make any noise?

Well, we already know that the Equinox prototype doesn’t make any noise, so here’s a new question: If a hydrogen-powered car that has zero emissions is ready for the road today and we don’t build it, how do we explain that to our grandchildren?

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