General Motors to Market Fuel Cell Vehicles

by : Mike Bartley

After several years of intensive research and development, the General Motors Corp. said that it now is ready to focus on producing hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles for the mass market. The automaker earlier announced that it will reassign more than 500 engineers working on fuel cells and fuel cell vehicle development from its research operation to its powertrain and global engineering divisions.

The automaker has concentrated on hydrogen as a viable element. Nowadays, the element is used extensively to make methanol, ammonia, heating oil, fertilizers, glass, refined metals, gasoline, rocket fuel, vitamins, cosmetics, semiconductor circuits, soaps, lubricants, and more. Additionally, it can fuel internal combustion engine vehicles as well as fuel cell vehicles. Virtually, auto giants are racing to manufacture fuel cell vehicles.

GM said that reassigning the engineers signals production of commercially viable hydrogen vehicles may be only a few years away, though many scientists and others remain skeptical. "This says, 'Not only have we done it in a lab, we're ready to do it for real,'" said Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development. "We have worked on this fuel cell technology long enough and hard enough to be able to start to move this into production."

The employees, mostly at GM facilities outside Rochester, N.Y., and Mainz-Kastel, Germany, will now report to leaders on the manufacturing department. But 150 workers will remain on the research department.

GM will now focus on getting fuel cells into vehicles and making sure they meet safety and durability requirements. The largest American automaker intends to use fuel cells in its Chevrolet Volt. The Volt, which debuted as a plug-in hybrid at the Detroit auto show, is designed to run on a lithium ion battery which would be paired to a hydrogen fuel cell system and other power sources.

"It's a real vote of confidence to see how much progress we've made," said Britta Gross, GM's manager of fuel cell commercialization at GM's Tech Center in Warren. "More of the top leadership is getting engaged. This is exactly what makes a program real."

Critics said that the focus on hydrogen-powered vehicles is diverting attention and resources away from more immediate efforts to making internal combustion engines cleaner and more efficient. And even automakers realize it will be a while before many average Americans are driving them. It will not be a swift change assisted by - it is something gradual.

Hydrogen cars for the everyday driver remain years, if not decades, away, said Bill Reinert, Toyota's U.S. advanced technology chief. Toyota is developing a hydrogen vehicle and has about 20 test cars on the road at any given time. Reinert believes that the obstacles are too great to produce more than a few thousands cars and trucks by the end of the decade. Only a major event such as a fundamental change in U.S. energy policy or a failure of the nation's gasoline system would speed up hydrogen's entry into the mass market, he said.

"Hydrogen is probably the gold standard that we'd like to achieve. The fact of the matter is that the market won't be ready nor will the infrastructure be ready," noted Reinert.

"They can come out with these vehicles tomorrow, but can they come out with ones that will meet the demands of 99 percent of the public?" said Spencer Quong, a senior vehicle analysts for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which lobbies for more environmentally friendly vehicles. "Infrastructure is going to be a much bigger issue than people are being led to believe."

The DaimlerChrysler AG and the Honda Motor Co. also tout their next generation hydrogen fuel cell product lines.