Reality Check: The Car Of The Future?

GM has come out with a car that uses no gasoline at all, but is it the kind of car we'll one day be driving? Bill Whitaker has a reality check.
General Motors' Sequel may look like mom's minivan, but the automaker says it's the car of the future. As CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, it runs on clean, plentiful hydrogen.

Is this going to take the place of the internal combustion car?

GM put it on the road this week, and Whitaker was among the first to take a drive.

"When the automobile was first invented, the DNA was petroleum," says Larry Burns, who heads GM's hydrogen project. "The DNA of the future automobile will be hydrogen instead of petroleum."

GM and Ford - in a slump and laying off thousands - are in a race to that future. Major carmakers are spending billions on hydrogen. Los Angeles has four Honda hydrogen cars in its fleet.

"I really love the car. I can't think of anything negative about it," says Detrich Allen of the Los Angeles Environmental Affairs Department.

Neither can President Bush, who's pledged $1.2 billion for hydrogen research.

"The idea of having a hydrogen-powered automobile is not a foolish dream. It's a reality that is going to come to be," the president has said.

What's the fuss about? While oil is a finite resource, hydrogen is infinite. It's in water, it's everyhere ... the most abundant element in the universe. And it burns absolutely cleanly, promising to take us back to the future.

The car is cool, clean and cutting edge, but a lot has to happen before you'll see many of them on the highways.

Why? Money. Hydrogen technology is expensive. Each prototype costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, on top of the billions more in costs for new hydrogen gas stations. To top it off, most hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuels.

"You can only make hydrogen one way, and that's expensive," says Dan Neil, an auto critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Neil says carmakers are spinning their wheels chasing hydrogen dreams when cheaper, superior technology already exists: electric batteries. To the outrage of fans, GM pulled the plug on its electric car, the EV1, in 2003, in part, because the batteries were inadequate. But Neil says that since then, "battery technology has progressed by leaps and bounds."

For example, the new Tesla electric from Silicon Valley, not Detroit, gets 250 miles per charge. Plug-in hybrids use batteries and gas to squeeze 140 miles out of each gallon.

"I think hydrogen is deader than disco, and all it needs to do now is lay down," Neil says.

GM, however, stands by its hydrogen car.

"The hydrogen economy is coming," Burns says.

The question is whether there is a real future for the car of the future.