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GM Celebrates 50th Anniversary of the World's First Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Vehicle

07 October 2016

This technical art shows the Electrovan’s interior crammed with fuel cell componentry that left room for only a driver and two passengers. (Image via GM)This technical art shows the Electrovan’s interior crammed with fuel cell componentry that left room for only a driver and two passengers. (Image via GM)

1966 was the year General Motors tested the Electrovan, the world’s first hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle.

Fifty years later, the company has invested more than $2.5 billion in hydrogen fuel cell technology and has been collaborating with Honda since 2013 to develop a next-generation system that will be much more powerful – but a fraction of the size of the equipment – that was crammed into Electrovan, which had room for only a driver and two passengers.

“We had three shifts of people on this project starting in January 1966 and finishing 10 months later,” said Floyd Wyczalek, 91, who was project manager of Electrovan fuel cell development in 1966. He recalls the 200-person team working on the first technology transfer of fuel cells from President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge to NASA to safely land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

“We had one running demo for the Progress of Power press conference in October that year.”

As of 2016, GM has several fuel cell demo programs, which have helped it accumulate more than 3.1 million miles of real-world experience on modern fuel cell systems. On Oct. 3 at the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) annual meeting and exhibition in Washington, D.C., GM revealed its latest fuel cell demo, the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, an off-road midsize pickup that the Army will test in extreme conditions next year.

Coincidentally, the ZH2 went from contract to completion in about 10 months, the same timing as the Electrovan. It will be the first fuel cell vehicle to wear the GM Hydrotec badge, a familial tie to the Ecotec gasoline engines.

“We see broad potential for fuel cell systems in military, aerospace and other applications while we continue on the path to a commercial vehicle,” said Charlie Freese, executive director, GM Global Fuel Cell Business. “It is pretty special to celebrate the Electrovan’s 50th anniversary.” Back in 1966, though, the Electrovan was strictly a test vehicle to explore hydrogen as an energy source for vehicle propulsion – now it’s a reality.

“Fuel cell durability was performed over a period of several months in a test cell,” Wyczalek said. “Driving acceleration and top speed tests were conducted on a chassis dynamometer.”

At the end of the project the Electrovan was stored in a Pontiac, Michigan, warehouse for 31 years before it was rediscovered in 2001 and assigned for use in fuel cell displays. The vehicle has also been loaned out to museums on occasion.

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