I believe I’ve seen the future of automobiles — and driven it — thanks to a “time machine” made by General Motors.

Unlike the contraptions depicted in Star Trek and other works of science fiction, GM’s time machine looks and behaves pretty much like a 2006 Chevrolet Equinox crossover. That may not sound sexy — heck, at least the time machine in “Back to the Future” was a cool, stainless steel Delorean — but you’ve never driven anything like it.

I certainly never had until last week. The Equinox I got to use for a day-and-a-half is powered by hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel fuel. Tim Reardon, the general manager of Quirk Chevrolet, made it possible for me to drive the car by cajoling Chevrolet to bring one of the rare Equinox Fuel Cell (FC) vehicles from southern Connecticut to his Portland showroom.

Where most cars have an internal combustion engine, this Equinox had a massive box called a “fuel cell stack.” Instead of having an internal combustion engine, it is propelled by an electric motor powered by what is known as a “fuel cell stack”

According to General Motors’ alternative fuel expert Stephen F. Marlin, a fuel cell stack is like a giant battery. In this case, that battery uses hydrogen to produce a chemical reaction that generates three byproducts: Heat, water, and electricity.

The electricity powers an electric motor that drives the Equinox FC and charges a conventional battery that provides a secondary power source. The heat is dissipated by several fans and radiators. And the water is dispersed into atmosphere through the Equinox FC’s exhaust pipes.

That, of course, is where tons of environmental pollutants are spewed into the air every day by conventionally powered vehicles. According to the experts, hydrogen-powered vehicles such as the Equinox don’t pollute at all.

Since hydrogen can be produced by water using nothing more than solar power, it can be a totally pollution-free energy source.

Marlin said the most conspicuous thing that ever escapes the Equinox FC’s exhaust pipe is a trace of water vapor that can sometimes be seen on cold days. I guess if you sucked in all the exhaust from an Equinox FC, you wouldn’t poison yourself but you might drown.

As funny as that sounds, the Equinox FC is no joke. While its underlying technology may seem like science fiction to anyone weaned on internal combustion engines (essentially everyone with a driver’s license), the Equinox FC generally operates and behaves like a conventional vehicle.

That explains why Marlin told me to drive it like I would any other vehicle that I test. And why it took only a few seconds for him to walk me through its operation and was willing to let me take off on my own without even a short introductory drive.

The biggest operational difference between the fuel cell-powered vehicle and a conventional one is the startup. There’s no starter motor to crank, so starting the Equinox FC is more like turning on a lamp than “turning over” a conventional vehicle.

After turning the Equinox FC’s key to the start position, you let go and wait. In moderate weather, the vehicle is ready to operate on limited power after just a few seconds. A few more seconds and all 236 pounds-feet of electric motor torque are at your disposal.

Marlin said it can take a bit longer to reach both states at low ambient temperatures, but also said the Equinox FC works fine at temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Equinox FC also operates differently from conventional vehicles at shutdown. Listening carefully, it sounded a little like my stomach after a two-burrito dinner, burbling and gurgling while it cooled down and expunged excess water vapor.

Marlin said some drivers and passengers also notice a faint whining sound while driving the Equinox FC, but I didn’t. What I did notice was the same unfamiliar silence that strikes me while driving a hybrid vehicle in electric mode.

But the Equinox FC is smoother and quieter than hybrids. There’s no surge — in noise or power — the way there is in hybrids when they transition back-and-forth between electric and gasoline power.

The Equinox FC simply delivers a silent, fluid surge of thrust that propels it from zero to 60 mph about as quickly as a high-mileage, gasoline-powered subcompact. Marlin says it does so while providing the cost equivalent of about 43 miles per gallon of gasoline.

I’ll take his word for that as well as his contention that pumping high-pressure hydrogen into a weird looking nozzle takes only about five minutes at properly equipped fueling stations. He also says that GM designed the refueling process to be very similar to conventional gasoline and diesel refueling.

The problem is finding a hydrogen filling station. I drove the Equinox FC in Maine, where there apparently are none. The nearest, according to Marlin, is well outside the Equinox FC’s 160-mile range.

He said future fuel-cell vehicles will have much greater range. GM’s Cadillac Provoq prototype, for example, which uses a next-generation fuel cell, is supposed to go 280 miles between refueling stops.

The Provoq fuel cell stack is half the size of the Equinox’s, yet produces more power. It also is supposed to be less costly to produce. Platinum, an extremely expensive rare metal, is a key component in GM’s fuel cell stacks. Marlin says each generation requires about half as much platinum as its predecessor.

That’s one reason GM expects to begin selling hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles in 2015. Based on my experience with the Equinox FC, I don’t doubt that for a minute.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe our hydrogen-fueling infrastructure is anywhere near as ready for the future as General Motors is.

 

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at:

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