Why the U.S. Army Is Interested in General Motors' Electric Pickup Truck

It's an electric Chevrolet Colorado pickup powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, the product of a collaborationbetween GM and the U.S. Army. It'll be shown in October, GM said. Image source:General Motors.

General Motors (NYSE: GM) and the U.S. Army will unveil an electric pickup truck powered by a fuel cell in October, GM said on Tuesday.

An electric pickup powered by hydrogen

We won't have all of the details until October, but we know it's an all-electric Chevrolet Colorado mid-size pickup powered by a fuel cell, a device that chemically converts the energy in a fuel cell (hydrogen gas, in this case) to electricity. The fuel cell's only "emission" is water vapor, making it a clean-energy technology.

The truck is a product of a collaboration between GM and the Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, that began last year. The intent of the collaboration is to allow the Army to explore consumer automotive technology, while GM gets feedback on how its technology performs under harsh military conditions.

Why is the Army interested in fuel cell trucks?

If they can be made affordable and reliable, electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells offer the Army several advantages over gasoline or diesel engines. First and foremost, they're quiet, which has obvious advantages in a military context.

Second, unlike internal-combustion engines, electric motors generate a lot of torque instantly. (That's what gives Tesla Motors' cars such thrilling acceleration.) Applied a little differently, that same torque can give off-road vehicles some big advantages when moving over rough terrain.

The Army also likes the idea of a vehicle that can serve as a portable electric generator. If it has enough fuel-cell vehicles operating, that "exhaust" might be useful as a water source. And even the Army is under political pressure to clean up its environmental act these days.

"Hydrogen fuel cells as a power source have the potential to bring to the force incredibly valuable capabilities," said TARDEC Director Paul Rogers in a statement. "With fuel cell technology advancing, it's an ideal time to investigate its viability in extreme military-use conditions."

What does GM get out of this deal?

GM has been working on fuel cells for many years. Its current research and development program, a joint project with Honda (NYSE: HMC), is focused on bringing affordable fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) to market around 2020, as part of GM's broader strategy to shift its global product portfolio toward electric powertrains.

Fuel-cell vehicles have long intrigued researchers. Compared to the heavy and expensive battery packs used in most electric cars, a tank of hydrogen gas is lighter and easier to design a vehicle around, and it can be "recharged" in just a few minutes.

While the about-to-be-launched Chevrolet Bolt EV shows that GM's battery-electric efforts are well advanced, GM has hinted that it sees a role for fuel cells in its future product portfolio as well. Fuel cells might make sense for bigger, heavier vehicles, or for situations in which quick recharging is essential (think first responders, for instance -- or for that matter, military applications).

Critics point out, rightly, that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are limited by the lack of refueling stations, while recharging stations for battery-electric vehicles are becoming much more common. It might turn out that fuel cells make the most sense in fleet applications, where the fleet owner can provide the refueling infrastructure. The Army would certainly qualify.

Working with the Army gives GM a chance to test its current fuel-cell technology under intense conditions. It might also, in time, give GM a leg up on winning contracts to supply fuel-cell vehicles to the other U.S. military branches.

What's next for GM's fuel-cell pickup

GM said the FCEV Colorado pickup will be revealed at the fall meeting of the Association of the United Stats Army in Washington, D.C., in October. We'll know more about the truck -- and GM's plans to bring it to the consumer market, if any -- at that time.

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John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.