GM moves fuel cell staff from lab to production

General Motors executives Wagoner and Burns pose with new hydrogen fuel cell powered Sequel concept vehicle
General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner, right, and GM Research and Development Vice President Larry Burns unveil the fuel cell Sequel concept car on January 9, 2005, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.General Motor / General Motors
/ Source: The Associated Press

Climate friendly fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen could be on the road with regular drivers behind the wheel in a few test areas within five or six years, according to a top General Motors Corp. official.

Larry Burns, vice president of research and development, offered the prediction this week as GM announced it has moved 500 fuel cell engineers and scientists from the laboratory side of the company into the chain of command that actually produces cars.

Burns said he's not yet willing to say exactly when hydrogen vehicles will be mass produced, but he said it should happen before 2020, the year many experts have predicted.

"I sure would be disappointed if we weren't there" before 2020, he said during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in GM's sprawling technical center campus in the Detroit suburb of Warren.

GM's organizational change, announced Friday, shows the company is confident enough in its research to take the step toward making the cars, Burns said.

"We've passed another milestone where we have come far enough in the development of this technology to start preparing for real production," Burns said. "That's a very significant milestone in our judgment."

Burns compared GM's organizational change to when it moved its engineers working on hybrid gasoline-electric power systems from research to production in 2003. GM had no hybrid models on the market then, but now has five, he said.

Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars use hydrogen to produce electricity that fuels an electric motor. They are quieter than gasoline engines and their only waste product is water, not the carbon dioxide from gasoline engines that scientists tie to global warming.

Obstacles remain
Government and industry experts have said many obstacles exist to widespread use of hydrogen-powered cars, ranging from high costs and a lack of fueling stations to the need for improved storage capacity and better range.

Another issue is how to obtain the hydrogen. It is in carbon-based fuels like natural gas, but producing it that way would still release carbon emissions. Using non-carbon wind or solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen is seen as the holy grail, but it's not clear yet whether that will be economically viable.

Virtually every automaker is testing hydrogen-powered vehicles, with Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. considered the furthest along.

GM workers won't physically move from their three U.S. locations and one site in Germany. But Burns said the structural change is important in GM's quest for leadership in the race to bring a fuel-cell electric vehicle into mass production. A small group will stay in research to develop longer-term technology.

The move is more than symbolic, because it shows GM is in transition from the laboratory to production, said Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California-Irvine.

"They're transitioning out of the trial-and-error stage and moving into the commercialization stage," said Samuelsen. "I know their plans are solid, meaning they are not smoke."

GM already has hand-built the Sequel, a hydrogen-powered crossover sport utility vehicle with a range of about 300 miles. It was driven safely on public roads during a recent trip in upstate New York. But engineers still need to reduce the costs to make fuel cell vehicles marketable, Burns said.

The company also plans to place more than 100 fuel cell-powered vehicles with consumers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles later this year.

Passing Toyota, Honda?
Samuelsen, whose researchers are helping test three Toyota hydrogen fuel cell cars, said GM is a little behind Toyota and Honda for fuel-cell leadership, but may take the lead when it sends out the 100 vehicles later this year.

He said the 5- to 6-year time frame for wider testing is realistic, especially given GM's commitment this year.

Once the wider testing areas are set up and engineers can check real-world performance, Burns said he expects fuel cell vehicles and the necessary filling stations to spread gradually throughout the world.

"If you learn enough and you're encouraged enough, then you go to that next generation and put more vehicles out there. That stimulates more stations. You can broaden your geographical area," Burns said.

The obvious benefits are ending America's dependence on petroleum for transportation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Given the issues that were facing as a society, man, you've got to get on with this," Burns said. "Part of getting on with it is this transfer of these 500 people."