General Motors Electrovan

Forget for a minute any personal reservations you may have concerning hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and allow yourself to fully appreciate this stunning GMC Handi-Van-turned futuristic shuttle for the world's most powerful corporation.

I was inspired to write about the Electrovan after seeing the new-for-whenever Chevrolet Volt production car and Bolt concept car. The new Volt looks like a Honda Civic that used the same spinning magic light show famous for turning the Japanese schoolgirl Usagi Tsukino into Sailor Moon. And the Bolt looks like they paid an outside firm to tear down a BMW i3 in order to reengineer its secrets. 

Don't be upset with my snark, I want General Motors to be successful—but it has got to start leading the industry, not remixing everyone else's work. I say that as a message of tough love, and here's why: we have high expectations of electric vehicles, and we want to be able to switch to an electric car. Why do you think Elon Musk, a man with money to retire young, even bothers with the seemingly insurmountable challenge—and daily rollercoaster—that is Tesla? Because he understands that the company that solves the problem of the electric car will change vehicles forever.

Not maintain market share, or slot an all-electric model somewhere into a vast range of vehicles. General Motors will sell gasoline vehicles for as long as it can. Tesla will never sell a gasoline vehicle—this is 2015, after all.

In 1966, things were a little bit different. It was General Motors at the front of the entire world with the answer to a question that seemed straight from the pages of Sci-Fi: "Can hydrogen fuel cells be used to power a vehicle?"

The answer, driven only around the General Motors campus—for reasons I'll explain in a minute—was the Electrovan, a cab-forward panel van that had a top speed of 112 km/h (70 mph), could accelerate from zero-to-100 km/h (62 mph) in 30 seconds, and had a range approaching 240 kilometres (150 miles). It was the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ever made. Let's let General Motors explain how it worked:

"Electrovan’s fuel cell powerplant supplied a continuous output of about 32 kilowatts and a peak output of 160 kilowatts. It consisted of 32 thin-electrode fuel cell modules connected in series. The motor and control system on the Electrovan were mounted between and under the two front seats. Located beneath the floor were the 32 fuel cell modules interconnected by some 167 meters (550 feet) of plastic piping. Also part of the installation were cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen tanks and an electrolyte reservoir mounted behind the middle bench seat. About 45 gallons of potassium hydroxide were required to fill the modules, the piping and the reservoir. This electrolyte alone weighed 250 kg (550 lbs) bringing the van’s total weight to 3220 kg (7,100 lbs)."

Or, more simply, a chemistry set on wheels. It's amazing that General Motors developed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in 1966, when most of the world was still on drum brakes and the smallest modem fit into a briefcase. Just.

I don't want you to think that this invention was a quick trip to Home Depot and a few weekends of work, or that it came together perfectly the first time. Reports say that it never left company property due to safety concerns, and that several mishaps during development were topped by a minor explosion that delivered some of its parts as far as 400 m (1/4 mile) away.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Craig Marks, head of General Motors' advanced research projects, said that the project was a nightmare of complexity, and that the company wouldn't allow reporters to drive it due to safety concerns.  The Smithsonian, when offered the Electrovan as a donation, declined.

Maybe that's because Dr. Marks had told them the Electrovan came with a horse trough big enough for a man to lie down in. During testing, the team had it filled with flame retardant in case of a chemical spill—just in case something went south.

For pushing vehicles forward a few decades, General Motors didn't get much attention. In fact, when Mercedes-Benz announced its first fuel cell vehicle in 1994, it thought its alternate fuel van was the world's first. Nope.

Electrovan wasn't the only advanced vehicle from General Motors in 1966—but that story will have to wait until tomorrow.