General Motors is building the world's largest fleet of fuel cell vehicles for real-world testing. The company will place more than 100 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cells with drivers around the world starting in the fall of 2007.

"This is about making it real," said Bryon McCormick, executive director of Fuel Cell Activities at GM. "As a company, we need to engage real customers."

The U.S. will get at least 100 vehicles with others planned for Asia and Europe. A variety of drivers will be selected in three regions: California, New York metropolitan and Washington D.C. The test areas are limited by the availability of hydrogen fueling stations. Each driver will have the vehicle from three to 30 months.

The Equinox Fuel Cell powertrain is similar to the equipment in the Sequel concept vehicle that journalists were allowed to drive when GM made the announcement. Equinox Fuel Cells were not available for test drives at that time.

Called "Project Driveaway," GM says the deployment plan is the first "meaningful" market test of fuel cell vehicles in the world. The vehicles will be built by GM Canada in Oshawa.

"The process is no longer a lab experiment," added McCormick. "Now it is a process."

The Equinox Fuel Cell will be powered by GM's 4th-generation fuel-cell propulsion system. It's engineered for 50,000 miles of life and can operate in sub-freezing temperatures. The vehicle is also equipped with a full range of safety equipment, such as side-impact air bags, anti-lock brakes and stability control.

Using the Equinox as a test bed for hydrogen technology ties well with the Sequel being badged a Chevrolet. The Chevy dealer network is the largest in the country and the brand appeals to a wide variety of consumers.

From a user standpoint, the Equinox Fuel Cell is only slightly different than a mainstream Equinox crossover vehicle. Seating is limited to four occupants with a 2-seat rear bench and console. Suspension modifications were needed as the weight ballooned up almost 700 pounds to 4,431 pounds. But rear cargo area is down only slightly to 32 cubic feet. Maximum payload is 750 pounds.

A total of 4.2kg of hydrogen fuel is stored in three carbon-fiber tanks that are mounted underneath and behind the rear passengers. Engineers say the tanks and the vehicle have been fully tested in both virtual and track crashes. The front-wheel-drive Equinox is powered by a 94kW electric motor than can deliver 0-60 times in the 12-second range. Top speed is 100 mph and the operating range is 200 miles. The system also includes a nickel metal hydride battery pack rated at 35kW that can be charged with regenerative braking. It is located under the floorboard of the rear-seat passengers.

Chevrolet will distinguish the Equinox Fuel Cell with a brilliant white Glacier Cold tri-color paint job and water-molecule graphics. Different front and rear fascia are also used for air intake and exhaust routing. The instrument panel gets fuel-cell specific gauges, including a running tally of the gasoline saved.

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