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Test-Driving the Car of the Future

Ask a random person to describe the car of the future, and you'll likely get a fanciful depiction of some swoopy-looking vehicle made from recycled oil tankers that gets 60,000 or 70,000 miles per gallon of liquid sunshine.

It will carry 8 comfortably, because the average American family has two children, but since it can also fly, passengers will appreciate sitting next to an empty seat.

Unfortunately, I've been waiting for such a car for the past 37 years, and probably will be for another 37, by which time I'm told the melting polar icecaps will have flooded all but 1 square mile of land, and there won't be anywhere to go.

On the other hand, if you ask someone from General Motors what the car of the future looks like, he may tell you that you're standing next to it, and hand you the keys.

• Click here to see more photos of the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle.

With the two-seat, bubble-esque EV1 electric car of "Who Killed The Electric Car?" infamy a better-left-forgotten memory like so many high-school yearbook photos, GM decided to disguise its latest shot at a car of the future as something you might actually want to drive — namely an SUV.

So the company took the popular Chevy Equinox, gutted its engine, transmission and gas tank, and replaced them with an electric motor derived from the EV1.

Instead of a battery, however, this time it's powered by what's known as a hydrogen fuel cell.

In short, if you zap water with electricity, it will break down into hydrogen and oxygen.

• Click here for FOXNews.com's Patents and Innovation Center.

About 170 years ago, a German scientist (who may have been reading his notes upside down at the time) realized that if you reversed the process, and could combine hydrogen and oxygen to make water, you'd get electricity as a byproduct, with water vapor the only emission — not that people cared about such things in the middle of the coal-powered Industrial Revolution.

A few years later, a Welshman built a device that could actually do this, using a catalyst to chemically combine the two elements and pump out electricity.

Sadly, he must have put this on a shelf somewhere and forgotten about it, because it was another 100 years before fuel cells started being used to any effect, in the U.S. space program.

Which begs the question: "Why didn't my grandfather's Oldsmobile have one of these?"

Well, while the concept is simple, fuel cells only work under very controlled conditions, which makes them expensive to build. They're the kind of thing that only an Eisenhower-era government program could have afforded to develop.

But now the technology has developed to the point where the price and capabilities of fuel cells are coming down to earth, and could potentially challenge internal-combustion engines on price in the near future.

Automakers like them because they solve the problems of limited range and recharging time that plague most battery-powered electrics. They also produce zero pollutants and don't need gas-burning engines, unlike gas-electric hybrids.

Several other companies are also moving forward with fuel-cell programs, but The General is about to launch the biggest effort yet to get them on the road.

No, you can't buy a fuel-cell car yet, but you can apply to "Project Driveway" (http://www.chevrolet.com/fuelcell/) for the opportunity to take home an Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle and treat it like your own car for three months.

In exchange for that, you give GM feedback from your experience that the company can use to further develop the technology.

• Read more about the 'Project Driveway' program.

Unfortunately, one big roadblock to owning a hydrogen-powered car is finding places to fuel up. There are only a couple of dozen hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S.

This currently limits GM's program to 8 locations near pumps in Southern California, Washington, D.C. and Westchester County, N.Y. The latter area is where I took one of about 100 vehicles in the fleet out for a drive.

Aside from the nifty Fuel Cell-themed paint job and hawker decals proclaiming "ZERO emissions" and "petroleum FREE," the only things that look out of the ordinary on the Equinox are the four "diffuser" slots out back. They're where the exhaust pipe should be, and where the water vapor instead comes out.

Inside, it's only when you look closely at the gauges that you realize it isn't a normal car. In place of a tachometer, there's a kilowatt power meter that measures how much energy the electric motor is using.

Other than that, it has a run-of-the-mill steering wheel instead of a mind-controlled-orb, a drive selector in the center console instead of another mind-controlled-orb, and seating for five humans. It's all very dull, actually, and far from futuristic.

That was exactly the idea: to make the environment as normal as possible so the driver can forget about the technology and just drive the Equinox like a regular car.

It's pretty successful at that, and things only get weird when you start it. Still no orb and you have to insert and turn a key, but when you do, the only thing that happens is a quick blip of the gauges and a couple of indicators lighting up.

There's no noise, but neither is there any in a hybrid with a full battery, so it's only strange for the 99.9 percent of people who don't work in Hollywood or drive a Prius.

On the road, the experience is no more exciting, but that's not to say it's bad.

With the power of an economy car and 600 pounds more weight than a conventional Equinox, it's far from sporty, but the smooth, shiftless electric motor gives the impression that it's quicker than it is.

It accelerates from a stop to 60 mph in about 12 seconds without much fuss, and when you get there it just cruises along like any other car.

Although the electric motor itself doesn't make much noise, the low-rolling resistance tires make up for that, and at highway speed it seems about as quiet inside as your average car — as much a testament to how hushed evil gasoline engines can be these days as to how quiet the Equinox is.

During my drive, the Low Fuel light conveniently came on, so we headed over to the White Plains, N.Y., Public Works Department, where Shell has installed a hydrogen pump in conjunction with the program.

The hydrogen is produced on-site from city water and electricity, and Shell has purchased hydropower offsets to pay for it, which means the car is effectively powered by water.

Hydrogen can also be derived from natural gas and is a byproduct of many industrial processes, usually cast off as waste, but electrolyzing it on-site allows it to be done with "green" energy produced by wind, geothermal and other non-polluting methods.

Hydrogen is measured in kilograms. One kilogram has roughly as much energy as a gallon of gasoline, costs about the same and provides about the same destructive power, if you're concerned that the car might turn into the exploding Hindenburg and take out the neighborhood.

The Equinox carries 4.2 kg in three carbon-fiber tanks located under the rear seat and luggage compartment, and can travel between 160 and 200 miles, delivering the equivalent of 38-48 mpg.

To fill it, you attach a self-locking nozzle to a valve on the car located under the flap where the gasoline usually goes. It's similar to filling a vehicle that runs on compressed natural gas, and takes as long as filling a conventional car, 5 minutes or so.

If you get frustrated with what's clearly a pretty mundane experience, or just want to impress your friends from the book club, there's a screen on the center console that can be set to display a diagram showing how the hydrogen tanks, fuel cell and electric motor are connected, monitoring where the energy is coming from and going to at any time.

If you do, you'll notice a yellow box right in the middle of everything. That's a battery, because when you make an electric car, even a hydrogen-powered electric car, you just can't get away from them.

Its main purpose is to capture energy produced by the regenerative breaking system, which turns some of the energy from stopping the car into electricity, instead of wasted heat as with conventional brakes. It's a proven system that hybrids have been using for years, and can give you a significant amount of added range for free.

General Motors hopes to sign up hundreds of drivers for "Project Driveway" over the next four years, and will add more fueling stations and vehicles as the project warrants.

Because the vehicles are technically prototypes, you can be sure that they cost more than some homes to build (a company rep wouldn't put a price tag on it for me,) but GM projects that by the middle of the next decade they could be able to put something like the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell on the market for a competitive price.

So the car of the future is just about here. It's green, and it might just save the planet for your children.

Just don't expect their future to be much more exciting than yours.