Detroit's Hy-Wire Act

The boys from General Motors want you to know how much they love the distant hydrogen-powered future. Just don't look at the sticker price -- or their lack of interest in the immediate demands for hybrid cars.

| Mon May 5, 2003 2:00 AM EDT

A 1973 Continental blue Dodge Dart Swinger, worth about $3,000, sits parked outside my San Francisco apartment. It's the car I drove to Sacramento in February for the unveiling of another car, General Motors' silver hydrogen fuel cell-powered Hy-Wire Prototype, sticker price $5,000,000.

I told people I drove the Dart to Sacra-"the big tomato"-mento because I had little faith that the alternative -- the train -- would get me there on time. But truthfully, I drove the Dart for the same reason I always drive the Dart -- because it's really, really fun to drive a big American car with squishy suspension and a huge sunroof at high speed through the Central Valley's dead-flat farmland. So I must admit that I arrived at the unveiling of GM's green supercar firmly convinced that the company's clever, environmentally correct engineering is, to use Vice President Cheney's phrasing, little more than a pricey show of corporate virtue.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

My car provides a control group. Friends, horrified to call themselves anything less than environmentalists, still visibly melt at the sight of its roaring grace. People who march against 'blood for oil' still want me to drive ("can we take the Dart?") on our weekend outings. Once, when it didn't start, a friend scratched underneath its dashboard and cooed, as if it were just a sleepy sled dog. Foreign tourists photograph it. Total strangers smile at me at red lights. Old men whisper "slant six" to themselves as they totter by on the sidewalk, like it's a Masonic password. Worse, I have understood them, and offered the countersign, "Thing'll live longer than I will," and we part with a mutual understanding.

And so, back in February, seated in the back seat of the Hy-Wire, I asked the driver, Ina Shlez of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, the only question I thought mattered:

"Having fun?"

*

"I am pleased to be here in Sacramento for a positive reason today," Beth Lowery had declared, unconvincingly.

Lowery was on duty as GM's spokeswoman for the unveiling. It was February 10, and several journalists and staff members from various legislative offices were being forced to sit through a GM PowerPoint presentation before being allowed to see the hydrogen hot rod. The undercard was the demonstration of a hybrid-powered city bus, which had attracted the attention of a few bus drivers from the nearby suburb of Roseville.

Lowery seemed comfortable with the crowd. But she wasn't among friends. General Motors and the State of California are currently locked in an emissions dispute. The state wants to require that cars be cleaner, and soon. California already has the nation's strictest emissions requirements, and the folks in this drab capital city want to make those rules even stricter. Detroit, naturally, hates the idea, and has sued to scuttle it. But California is the nation's largest car market, so the nation's automakers can't just ignore the state and sell dirty cars to China or Texas. They have to play ball, and California knows it. Thus, while the dispute plays out in courtrooms and boardrooms, GM is also investing in whiz-bang green technology like the Hy-Wire.

So it wasn't surprising that a distinct air of suspicion dominated the crowd of just over a dozen bureaucrats gathered in the Sacramento Hyatt's conference room.

"They usually want something from us," a staffer from State Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson's office said. "I'm here to see what they want."

Lowery didn't specifically answer that question, but she came very close. She talked about "removing the car from the environmental equation," as in ending the auto's role as a leading contributor to air pollution. A picture of the Hy-Wire appeared on the screen behind her. It's a boxy thing, no curves, a little too much like a prop from a movie to be real. And it isn't, Lowery admits. To bring such a new technology to market -- as she says California demands -- will require years of research and development. Consumers can't pay for it out of their pockets, at least not in the early going. There, unsaid, was the answer to the staffer's query: GM wants a subsidy -- something along the lines of the $2,000 tax credit California currently offers consumers for purchasing hybrid gas/electric cars. A 2003 Honda Civic hybrid (47mpg) has a sticker price of $22,000. A traditional gas-powered Honda Civic (31mpg) costs $20,000. Buy the eco-car, and the state helps defray the higher cost.

The motivation for GM is pretty obvious. Honda expects to sell 25,500 hybrids this year, up from 16,200 in 2002. By comparison, GM doesn't even have a hybrid car model available (GM CEO Rick Wagoner told a Detroit auto show crowd that GM would be retooling to produce hybrids in volume by 2007). Like the rest of America's automakers, GM is faced with the prospect of playing catch-up in the hybrid market while building its existing business around selling SUV's and other far-from-green vehicles. The Hy-Wire is the General Motors response to both problems. With it, GM officials are doing their best to place the company at the forefront of the hydrogen economy so many green advocates dream of, while deflecting criticism of its current practices.

Still, conversion to a hydrogen economy will require a much more complicated incentive system than the simple per-car state rebate the GM team in Sacramento was clearly angling for. It will cost more per car, and demand a rethinking of both drivers' daily habits and the nation's energy infrastructure. Lowery turned the podium over to an engineer, Larry Burns, to address how the change can take place.

A trim man who spoke with an engineer's pragmatism, Burns declared that the Hy-Wire prototype demonstrates two principles that will revolutionize the traditional car. The PowerPoint demonstration continued to whiz behind him. The first principle is hydrogen propulsion. Basically, it's possible to make an efficient and usable hydrogen fuel cell car, he said -- hell, there was one parked outside in the rain. True, it wasn't yet cost-effective, but Burns asserted there is reason to believe any funding of research would be money well spent. Burn's example was the computer industry.

"Since 1988, the computer industry has brought down the cost of computer memory from $17,000 per gigabyte to $6 in 2001" he said. "The cost challenge we're facing with the fuel cell is an order of magnitude less that what the computer industry had to accomplish - and requires the same type of molecular material breakthrough."

Translation: They'll be able to sell a hydrogen car for twenty grand or so in twelve years, if Detroit is as good at its job as Silicon Valley had been at its.

The second innovation explained the little ottoman that I would see under Shlez's feet during our test-drive later. The Hy-Wire has almost no moving parts and no need for brake pedals or an accelerator, Burns explained. It runs on remote control: if you twist one handle, an electrical impulse communicates a command to the wheels, which execute that command. Burn's computer analogy wasn't really an analogy. The HyWire was basically hardware running on software.

According to GM's Hy-Wire vision, the auto industry will save some of its money right there. If you want to make a truck today, you build a factory that makes trucks. If you want to make cars, you build a separate factory to do that. Each factory could cost a billion dollars. With the Hy-Wire, you build one factory, program the chassis accordingly, and simply attach different body types to them, like changing a shirt. If you want low gears, for pulling stumps out of the ground, you install the low gear program and a truck top. If you want a commuter car that handles traffic well, you install the stop-and-go software package and a minivan top. Burns was using words like "docking station" -- describing the car's top clicking into the chassis -- and "upgrade."

Ina Shlez was encouraged.

"We want to make San Francisco a hydrogen city," she said. Hydrogen fuel cell buses, fire trucks, police cars. Burns' numbers seemed to add up, as far as Shlez was concerned. But one thing didn't. Even hydrogen cars are still cars. And that presents its own set of problems.

*

People who work in car showrooms will tell you that an emotional connection to the vehicle is a large part of the sale. The Hy-Wire's appeal, though, is almost entirely intellectual. It's a stunning invention and it looks no worse than any other boxy concept car. But it's no '49 Ford. It has angles instead of curves and quiet instead of roar. It's automotive carob.

We pulled away from the parking spot with a sound uncannily similar to an espresso machine, the prototype sputtering exhaust of harmless steam,. The car jerked left then right.

"It takes a little getting used to," said Shlez. "It's not like a regular car, no."

But Shlez was excited to be in the prototype. It feels innovative, she said. It has no gas pedal and no engine. You drive with your hands, like a motorcycle. Your feet rest comfortably on the 'docking station' footrest.

We circled the park at about thirty. I took a turn driving, too. It's phenomenal. But it's not really fun. Everyone else took a shot at the car, and everyone seemed to respond similarly. The man from the speaker's office said it was "pretty neat," which seemed like damnation through faint praise. It was the sort of thing one says about a hidden cup-holder in a station wagon. Pretty neat. The water vapor exhaust was, indeed, pretty neat. A GM engineer, Neil Schilke, stood nearby, talking to Shlez. He was a reedy man in a garish silver jacket with "Cadillac" embroidered on the front. According to Schilke, the exciting part of the Hy-Wire is that its technology will sell more cars.

"Only twelve percent of the people in the world owns a car," he said, and cars have gotten too good to make money from that small slice of humanity. "You're getting your first tune up at 100,000 miles." Used cars are more reliable, and new cars are pushing the 100 year-old internal combustion design about as far as it can go. So it's a matter of putting yourself out of business, or finding out what the emerging markets of the world will be, and what they'll be driving in twenty years.

"What this technology is going to allow us to do is expand the market." Like the traffic isn't already pretty bad in Calcutta these days. "It's exciting. This is the first re-invention of the automobile, really, since its invention. Everything before this was a refinement of the original design from the early 20th century."

He seemed legitimately excited by the prospect, as did Shlez. She moved off to talk with another GM engineer about "boutique fuels" and other car-jargon.

"What if they don't want cars in the future at all," I asked Shilke.

"We're in the car business," he said.

When I got back to the Dart I'd gotten two tickets for an expired meter, locked my keys inside (ten minutes, coat hanger), and the sunroof was leaking. Even so, the guy from the Hyatt who loaned me the coat hanger still grinned at the infernal thing when it started. It will take a while for five million dollars of hydrogen to turn heads the way three grand of pollution can. But it seems possible.

Of course, the train station was three blocks away. Had there been a train there, I'd have taken it. There wasn't.