For as many years as we can remember, General Motors has been investigating a variety of different alternative fuel drivetrains for use in its cars, with small but devoted teams working on everything from advanced internal combustion engines through to electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies.
Given the recent launch of the second-generation Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car and GM’s mindful acceleration of plans to bring its long-range Chevrolet Bolt EV to market, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Detroit automaker has bet all of its future on battery electric vehicles.
But while battery electric technology might be GM’s choice for passenger cars right now, GM confirmed this week that it will be sending a hydrogen fuel cell prototype vehicle to the U.S. Army as part of a multi-year contract to build and demonstrate a hydrogen fuel cell reconnaissance vehicle for Uncle Sam.
As Automotive News (subscription required) reports, the deal to supply and test hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in a military scenario was signed back in September, with the aim of helping the U.S. military evolve its transportation fleet beyond the gas-guzzling SUVs and heavy-duty trucks which currently form the mainstay of non-tank fleet vehicles.
Speaking to Automotive News on Wednesday, GM spokesperson Dan Flores said that at present, GM is not in a position to disclose what kind of all-terrain vehicle its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain would be installed in, but promised that “we hope to release more details about the collaboration in the near future.”
The deal is part of a long-standing relationship between GM and the U.S. military, one which can be traced back decades and has seen the creation of go-anywhere, do-anything vehicles like the Humvee. But with the U.S. military just as keen to reduce its carbon footprint as the rest of the world, it’s now time for cleaner, greener, and cheaper vehicles.
Back in August, GM signed a deal with the U.S. Army to supply up to 55,000 turbodiesel Duramax V-8 engines to be used in the Army’s Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLLTV. Destined to become the replacement for the now aged Humvee, the JLTV will offer some benefits on the famous gas-guzzler, but at the end of the day will still consume far more fuel than the average new car.
For the U.S. Army, replacing gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles with electric ones have some clear advantages beyond the environmental benefits. Firstly, there’s the operational noise reduction: far less noisy than a throbbing internal combustion engine, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle can be harder for the enemy to detect in combat situations. With no harmful emissions too, they can be operated inside and outside with similar ease.
Then there’s the use of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the field as an emergency power station. Even in non-combat situations, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle could be used as an emergency power source for communities hit by natural disasters, and can operate at night with low noise pollution.
Finally, there’s the benefits of having an all-electric drivetrain: instant, low-range torque, and a limited number of moving parts to go wrong.
While electric vehicles are a better choice for consumers, the requirement to operate in hostile environments at a moment’s notice means that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the more logical choice for the military. But that doesn’t mean that electric vehicles are being ignored.
As we detailed a year ago, the U.S. Air Force is currently undertaking the biggest vehicle-to-grid study yet with a fleet of Nissan LEAF electric cars as well as several Via range-extended electric pickups and minivans. Examining the potential that electric vehicles have to provide power to military bases in an emergency or provide off-grid storage for electricity generated on-base from photovoltaic solar panels, that particular project will conclude at some point in the next few years.
While GM and Honda signed an agreement back in 2013 and have been working together on reducing the size and increasing the efficiency of modern fuel cell stacks, GM is careful to note that the fuel cell being tested by the U.S. Army is built solely with GM technology.
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