Giz Test Drive: Student-Built Challenge X Fuel-Cell Car in NYC

GM lugged 17 environmentally friendly cars to New York—fittingly, to Tavern on the Green. The rain-soaked occasion was a display of Challenge X contenders, nearly identical 2005 Chevy Equinoxes modded by teams from schools across the US and Canada to be environmentally friendly, fuel efficient and/or low in emissions. University of Waterloo's hydrogen powered, zero-emissions, electric SUV earned the most awe from the crowd for its ambitious yet completely safe, student-built fuel-cell power plant.

RearFuel Cell StartDashboardDiagnostics screenFuel CellsBatteryMain screenP5160025.JPG

This vehicle from University of Waterloo in Canada uses a 400kg fuel cell to turn on-board hydrogen and airborne oxygen into energy that powers two 67-kW electric motors. If the SUV demands more power, it has a backup battery that is charged in part by a regenerative brake, like on today's hybrids.

They actually let me drive the thing. Here's what I thought: The ride is extremely smooth. Since the SUV doesn't have an engine, it's relatively quiet, especially when accelerating. Most of the noise comes from the oxygen intake system, but it only comes in quick bursts. The brakes are sensitive, but part of the reason for that is to use the kinetic energy harvested by braking for recharging the battery. A touchscreen computer in the centre displays all the diagnostics, and shows where the vehicle is getting its power.

The truck holds about 4kg of hydrogen packed at 5000psi, which gives it the equivalent of ~25mpg. It is extremely clean, as the only emission given off by the vehicle is a bit of water, a byproduct of the fuel cell process. It tops out around 105kph, but that can be improved in the future. The main problem with the fuel cell SUV is the lack of places to fill up the tank. Hydrogen fueling stations are a long way from the mainstream, and the team said there are only two locations where they can reload on the way to Washington, DC, their final destination on this tour. Hopefully this will change soon, because a clean, abundantly available fuel source seems like a pretty good option to me. [Challenge X]