GM takes next step to develop fuel cells

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WARREN, Mich. — Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles 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.

Mr. 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 analysts have predicted.

“I sure would be disappointed if we weren’t there” before 2020, he said at his office in GM’s sprawling technical center campus in the Detroit suburb of Warren.

GM’s organizational change, announced last week, shows the company is confident enough in its research to take the step toward making the cars, Mr. 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,” Mr. Burns said. “That’s a very significant milestone in our judgment.”

Mr. 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.

Government and industry specialists 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.

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

GM workers won’t physically move from their three U.S. locations and one site in Germany. But Mr. 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 at Irvine.

“They’re transitioning out of the trial-and-error stage and moving into the commercialization stage,” Mr. Samuelsen said. “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. But engineers still need to reduce the costs to make fuel-cell vehicles marketable, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 five- to six-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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Burns said.

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

“Given the issues that we’re facing as a society, man, you’ve got to get on with this,” Mr. Burns said. “Part of getting on with it is this transfer of these 500 people.”

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