Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Is the Fuel Cell-Powered Car Coming Anytime Soon? GM Exec Says Yes, Reporter Says No Way

Tough to tell one way or the other, judging by the current Automotive News. On the one hand is reporter Mark Rechtin and on the other is Larry Burns, GM Vice-President for Research and Development and Strategic Planning. These two guys might as well be on different planets.

First, Rechtin, a veteran automotive trades reporter, notes that for at least 20 years now experts within the industry and without have been promising practical, affordable and desirable fuel-cell powered vehicles within 20 years.

He quotes Honda Executive Chief Engineer Tomoyuki Sugiyama, who said in 2003 that "it will be at least 20 years before conditions will be ready for individuals to own a fuel cell car and we can start mass production."

And he notes that researchers quoted in a recent issue of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers journal predicting it will be - you guess it - 20 years before hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles will be a commonplace on dealer lots.

But turn some more pages and you come to an interview with Burns, who sounds like a man with all the answers. Asled if he still believes, as he did five years ago, that a commercially viable system will be announced by 2010, Burns said: "Certainly. And even in 2010 it will be able to keep up with today's internal combustion engines in performance and durability."

When the GM fuel cell powered vehicle debuts, Burns said, it will "offer a range of 300 miles, exhibit an impressive acceleration and last at least 150,000 miles. We have already invested more than a billion dollars in it."

And with that billion smackeroos has come some progress, acording to Burns, who noted that:

"In the last five years, we have driven our prototype 275,000 test kilometers (171,000 miles) and learned from weaknesses in the system. Take our most recent prototype, the Sequel. We are presenting a driveable version based on this prototype in 2006."

The design technology behind the Sequel that will be unveiled next year was fixed two years ago, Burns said.

"By 2009, we want to once again cut the fuel cell stack size by 50 percent. In the last seven years, it has been reduced by a factor of 14," he said.

Rechtin isn't impressed with Burns' promises. "GM promised one million 'full' hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles for sale by 2007. Credibility seems to be an issue here, along with advanced R&D funding, what with all the gallons of red ink pouring out of GM's headquarters."

So who is right, the cynical scribe who has been reporting the hollow promises lo these many years or the struggling veep who must know the story about the little boy who warned once too often about the approach of a big bad hungry wolf?

Like Rechtin, I covered the industry's initial foray into fuel cell commercialization during the Clinton administration. I, too, heard all the promises, saw all the mockups and prototypes and asked all the same questions.

I hope Rechtin is wrong and Burns is right. But I'm not ready to place a bet either way, yet.