WASHINGTON - General Motors will put a fleet of six hydrogen-powered automobiles on the streets of the nation's capital this year.
Shell Hydrogen, a part of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, will install a hydrogen fuel pump at a Shell retail gasoline station in the Washington area so the vehicles can be refueled like other cars and trucks.
The demonstration project, unveiled Tuesday, March 4, by GM and Shell, will be the most extensive U.S. attempt - outside California - to prove the viability of fuel cell vehicles and of hydrogen as a motor fuel.
The project will show that the chicken-and-egg problem can be solved, say GM Vice President Larry Burns and Shell Hydrogen CEO Donald Huberts. They refer to the big question that has nagged proponents of switching to a hydrogen economy: Which comes first, the fuel or the vehicles that can use it?
For the next two years, the vehicles - Opel Zafira minivans from GM of Europe, equipped with GM's HydroGen3 powertrain - will give rides and driving opportunities to people in the Washington area. A GM staff person likely will be with each vehicle at all times, company officials say.
Burns says the goal is to collect 10,000 impressions. In other words, three or four people, on average, will ride or drive each of the Zafiras, five days a week. "We have to make it real in the eyes of customers," Burns says.
The targeted audience will include federal officials, members of Congress and their staffs and other people who influence policy making, the companies say. Members of the public also will participate.
Several of the Zafiras will use gaseous hydrogen. Others will use the liquid form. Both forms, extracted from natural gas, will be available at the same gasoline station, the executives said.
Fuel cells combine hydrogen from a fuel source with oxygen from the air to make electricity to power a vehicle, with only water as a byproduct. While they promise a petroleum-free, pollution-free future, major obstacles remain - the high cost of the powertrain and producing fuel in nonpolluting, economical ways.