General Motors: Who Needs Hybrids?

If concept cars are any indication, then General Motors Corp. is ahead of its rivals in the race to build hydrogen-powered vehicles. Exhibit A: The company's Hy-wire, a $5 million experimental car that powers down the highway by converting hydrogen to electricity and emitting water vapor exhaust. GM execs say the Hy-wire is a glimpse of what it's planning for hydrogen cars, which they hope will be street-ready in small numbers by 2010. Meantime, some of the concept car's electronic wizardry is already showing up in current models.

The most immediate difference between the Hy-wire and a conventional car is the lack of an engine or transmission. Instead, an electric motor powered by the hydrogen fuel cells turns the front wheels. With the bulky drivetrain gone, engineers were able to design an open cockpit with tons of legroom and cargo space, not to mention a windscreen that practically reaches the floorboards. That allows the driver to see the road directly ahead.

The other differences: There are no pedals or steering wheel. Instead, the driver navigates through traffic with hand controls like those found on an aircraft. To accelerate, he twists a handgrip; to brake, he squeezes. A computer relays those signals to the brakes, motor, and steering system. Such electronics suck a lot of juice -- power that the beefy hydrogen cells ably supply. But versions of the computer-aided accelerator are already in the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR roadster, though with a conventional gas pedal.

What's so great about computer-aided controls? For starters, they respond faster than traditional controls do. Moreover, if the car starts to skid, the onboard brain automatically adjusts direction. Such stability controls could be a big advance, though they won't be ready for prime time for a while, says Nick Zielinski, GM's director of vehicle and technology integration.

Where GM has really excelled is in cramming all that technology into one roomy car. The fuel cells, hydrogen tanks, batteries and computer controls have been packed into an 11-inch-thick chassis. In most fuel cell concept cars, the storage tanks take up too much of the cargo space. The design of the chassis, which resembles a giant skateboard, solves that problem.

It will be years before GM masters the technology. For now, the Hy-wire's range is a scant 80 miles. Moreover, its fuel cells cost an estimated $50,000 a vehicle, 10 times what any company could afford in a production car. Still, it's a tantalizing start.

By David Welch in Detroit

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