Fuel-Cell Pickup TruckClick to enlarge picture

This modified three-quarter-ton Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab is the world's first fuel-cell pickup truck.

Boot camp for the modified three-quarter-ton Silverado Crew Cab takes place at an Army base in Ft. Belvoir, Va., outside of Washington, D.C. While the large white single star on both front doors suggests the pickup will be toting a brigadier general around the fort, the duty assignment is far less glamorous—the non-tactical chore of delivering packages.

Hydrogen, the Army's Future Fuel?
The Army has a high level of interest in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for two reasons. First, it seems that the same problems which off-roaders face—getting as far as possible into the woods on a tank of fuel—cause issues for the military. Second, the military has a mandated task to reduce petroleum-based fuel consumption by 75 percent and reduce harmful emissions of heavy-duty commercial trucks and buses on bases—a major undertaking considering the Army itself has a fleet of over 246,000 non-tactical vehicles and drives 823 million miles annually.

GM's new fuel-cell truck aims at being the solution to both problems. Hydrogen vehicles are powered by a chemical reaction that combines oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity that powers electric motors. A fuel cell emits water and heat, nothing more.

With a large assembled media group at the Fuel Cell Center, test drives of the pickup were limited to about ten minutes. So we asked about the possibility of an extended drive after the truck was delivered to Ft. Belvoir. A week later, GM replied they would work through Army channels for their okay. After all, the pickup was leased to the Army and it cost several hundred thousand dollars. After two months of waiting, an MSN Autos exclusive test drive was granted.

The Term "Engine Bay" Doesn't Apply
The all-wheel-drive truck uses the Chevrolet Silverado's production frame and bodywork. Motivation comes from two 94 kW fuel-cell stacks—GM calls them "power modules"—producing a combined 164 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque. That's close to the motor torque of 335 generated by GM's 5.3-liter V8 engine. Each module directs electricity to an electric motor, one to drive the front wheels and one for the rear wheels. The truck can operate with just one module and motor. Raise the hood, and the term "engine bay" is immediately discarded. Packed tightly between the fender wells are the drivetrain's cooling radiators, high voltage electrical components and electronic management systems. Under the hood, the only thing common with a conventionally powered pickup is a 12-volt battery that operates the standard auxiliary systems. (Twenty years from now, hot-rodders will have to find something other than chrome valve covers and stainless steel exhaust headers to impress their friends.)

Underneath, the two fuel-cell power modules and three hydrogen storage tanks are tucked between the frame rails, protected by steel skidplates. The truck's standard independent front suspension remains unchanged, while in the rear the live rear axle setup has been replaced by a brawny independent suspension that makes space for the second electric drive mechanism.

The pickup is equipped with a bonus: GM's Quadrasteer four-wheel-steering system. In low-speed driving, the rear wheels steer opposite the front wheels, enabling the big truck to gracefully pull into a tight parking spot as easily as a compact car. At highway speeds, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front wheels, providing more stability while changing lanes or passing

A Bit of Luxury
Since the pickup was pulled off the Silverado production line for its fuel-cell conversion, Army personnel assigned to the duty of driving it are surely envied by their buddies. This Crew Cab is like a luxury sedan with a pickup bed, compared to the Army's standard, stripped-down everyday work truck. Great seats combine with the smooth suspension to make this an extremely comfortable vehicle for both driver and passengers. There's stretch-out room up front. Even with the front seats all the way back, tall passengers have space between their knees and the seat backs. A minimal floor hump means large personnel can fit comfortably in the rear middle position. When middle seating isn't in use, there's an extra-wide folding armrest with two cupholders. An oversize rear window plus excellent mirrors make visibility great.

Turn On the Air Conditioner
Weather on test-drive day was blistering hot and to make matters less bearable, stiflingly humid, which is not unusual in and around D.C. in the summer. Surprisingly, the truck's air conditioning system had never been tested under real-world driving conditions, and it was suggested that this would be an excellent opportunity to try it out. I couldn't have agreed more, since at 10:30 a.m. the thermometer was already nipping 90 degrees.

To get things up and running, this pickup is turned on, not started like the conventional Silverado. There is a few seconds' wait for the electrochemical reaction to get started as the fickle hydrogen is split into protons and electrons that zip through fuel-cell membranes. When the computer screen readouts indicate that both power modules are creating electricity to power the motors, put a foot on the brake pedal, push the button "D" for drive, and you're off.

Close, But Not Quite V8 Power
When accelerating from a stop, rather than the familiar muffled sound emitted by a piston-driven engine, a high pitch whir from the electric motors is mixed with a resonating cacophony of huffing and puffing from the compressors as they push air into the fuel-cell stacks. At first, because it's so different, the sound is somewhat irritating and distracting. After a half hour or so the auditory senses have blended the sound into the driving landscape and it becomes normal.

GM says the fuel-cell Silverado "accelerates in a similar fashion to a production truck, despite weighing in at 7,500 pounds." That's a bit of a stretch, but it does have ample get-up-and-go power off the line. When I say ample get-up-and-go, I don't mean plenty, as in my cup runneth over with testosterone-infused high-test gasoline V8 power, but there is enough scoot to confidently turn onto a street with oncoming traffic.

Using a single-speed electric gear-drive transmission with an overall gear ratio of 10.95:1, acceleration is constant with no interrupting gear changes. Army brass turned down our request to drive the truck on area freeways, so the top speed of 93 mph was never approached. The first seven miles of the selected drive route was a two-lane, heavily used thoroughfare taking us through D.C./Virginia suburbia and past George Washington's historic Mount Vernon residence. The truck hustled properly through the mix of locals and tourists scurrying about in the heat. After negotiating a confusing roundabout, the two lanes became a wide, four-lane divided parkway that cut a gentle winding swath through a forested area. Light traffic gave the opportunity to hedge a bit on the posted 50 mph speed limit and cruise close to freeway speeds. Not wanting to stray too far from Ft. Belvoir's hydrogen fueling facility, the drive was limited to around 75 miles—slightly more than half of the pickup's 125-mile fuel range.

It Performs for the Army, But . . .
As it sits, the Silverado fuel-cell truck is well-suited for its Army duty of delivering a variety of supplies on base, where the top speed limit is 35 mph. Electric motors excel at delivering good low-speed performance and Quadrasteer provides superb maneuverability. Does it fill the needs of someone who needs a heavy-duty work truck during the week, then loads up the family and camping gear for a weekend outing? No, but it's not far off the mark. During the drive the truck never stumbled, nor failed to stop; never missed a corner nor put upon its driver or passengers. It provided adequate acceleration when required and glided through a swooping S-curve with ease. And, yes, the air conditioner performed without a hitch.

GM has invested more than $1 billion in fuel-cell vehicle research and development in the last several years. While the automaker isn't saying that fuel cells will blow away the piston engine anytime soon, it is standing by its commitment to deliver hydrogen fueled vehicles by the end of this decade. In a June speech given at Northwestern University, Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research, development and planning, indicated that by 2010 the company would have at least five vehicles available to consumers. They would range from the HydroGen 3 minivan priced near $30,000 to a crossover SUV under $60,000.When asked if one of the other three vehicles would be a Chevrolet pickup similar to one based at Ft. Belvoir, GM officials are mum. If it is, Chevy might want to consider adopting the Army's stylish paint scheme for a special edition truck.

Larry E. Hall is editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance automotive journalist based in Olympia, Wash. He has an intense interest in future automotive technology.

In the market for a new car? MSN Autos is pleased to provide you with information and services designed to save you time, money and hassle. Click to research prices and specifications on any new car on the market or click to get a free price quote through MSN Autos' New-Car Buying Service.