GM Stays the Course on Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Updated August 22, 2009

Despite little evidence that the United States federal government will continue to support hydrogen fuel cells in the future, General Motors intends to stay the course. Alan Taub, GM’s new executive director of research and development, announced last week that the carmaker will have a commercially viable powertrain for a second-generation fuel cell stack by 2012. GM does not yet have an approved vehicle program that would carry the stack.

Taub replaced Larry Burns, one of the industry’s most prominent supporters of fuel cells vehicles. Though Burns officially retired, he is rumored to be a casualty of the executive shakeup promised by CEO Fritz Henderson after GM emerged from bankruptcy. Beth Lowery, GM’s vice president for environment, energy and safety policy, has also “retired.” Some analysts believed the carmaker’s hydrogen aspirations would follow Burns out the door. But Taub’s announcement, if nothing else, indicates that GM will continue to evaluate the technology’s future.

The Obama administration promised to keep a hands-off approach to the management of GM— a company that is effectively owned by the federal government. Energy Secretary Steven Chu all but laughed-off the technology’s prospects, saying that it’s at least 15 to 20 years and “four significant technological breakthroughs” away from viability. Quipped Chu, “If you need four miracles, that’s unlikely. Saints only need three miracles.”

But perhaps Taub was encouraged by advancements made in GM’s recently completed fifth generation fuel cell. According to AutoblogGreen, the updated cell is significantly smaller, cheaper and more durable than its predecessors. Most of GM’s competitors see a longer timeline, targeting around 2020 for competitively priced fuel cell cars—with the hope that government support for hydrogen refueling infrastructure will materialize if they build viable cars.

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  • Jennifer @ Improve Gas Mileage Guide

    I sincerely hope that hydrogen fuel cells will be useful to the American public by then, but I don’t see how this will be an efficient change. Setting up these hydrogen pumps alone is going to take time and a lot of money. I seriously doubt we’re going to see this as early as 2012, and even if it’s available, I wonder how many people will actually go for it.

    I imagine it could end up like the electric cars. I hope I’m wrong.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Its too bad GM quit after their 2nd generation electric vehicle (I guess the Volt is sort of their 3rd generation). Then they would really have something great. The fuel cell is pretty much a pipe dream.
    Hydrogen can not really be a good solution. There’s no good source of it on our planet.

  • dan2931

    well GM goes down the wrong path….again, and again, and again. going belly up, AGAIN. When we’re driving mostly hybrids, plug in hybrids and pure EV’s. GM will be in the process of being liquidated.

  • sean t

    GM must be very brave. At the moment, the cost is still too high, eg the Honda Clarity costs $2m each, that’s why Honda don’t sell, they just lease them.

  • RKRB

    Wow! I didn’t realize that hydrogen fuel cells were such a terrible idea, until reading that GM is backing them.

  • aaronz

    i think fuel cells are out dated its like a gas car.

    I like pure evs it makes the car simpler and less maintenance just plug it in no need for pumps and tubes and extra stuff. Pure Ev is just a battery and a electric engine. and a fuel cell is electric but the only benefit is that u can refuel faster! but in 10 years we will have like 880v and 100a quick charges with 200mile range evs

  • Malaysian Plug-in Hybrid Advocate

    To get a liter of hydrogen we have to burn multiple liters of gas, just to get a few kilowatts of electricity. Why not burn a liter of gas to generate a few kilowatts of electricity like hybrid??

  • dalwinder sidhu

    I think fuel cell technology needs more research and development to achieve our goal.This will be useful tool to cleaner air and peace in the universe.

  • Skeptic

    Hydrogen is, literally, vaporware.

    What most of the unwashed masses don’t understand when they babble about how the “hydrogen economy will save us” is that there is no ready source of hydrogen – it’s all combined with something else. So you have to spend lots of energy getting the hydrogen into usable form so that you can drive to McDonald’s.

    As someone else said, you might as well just burn gasoline.

    Until it’s gone and we finally do something smart, like invest in electrified ground transportation (and no, I don’t mean MagLevs – more vaporware!).

  • Blue Swan

    Fuel Cell cars the answer to CO2 pollution and true energy independence.

    The grid can adapt to creating H2 using solar and wind and still provide baseload with H2.

    Battery cars are a fantasy and must be abandoned quickly.

  • FamilyGuy

    I like the EV idea, but limited ranges and long recharge times are not helping their cause. Also, where is this electricity coming from? Burning coal, sure, we have it here in the US, but is that any better for the environment? Off oil and into coal? Is this the way to go?

    I like the Hyrodgen idea. I hope that it can work.

  • Anonymous

    I like H2 as long as it comes from renewable sources and not natural gas.

    I like electric cars if the range can be upped and recharge time reduced.

    Exchanging oil for coal would make better national security sense.

  • DC

    Hydrogen is quite litteraly, an energy sink. You will never get more energy out of a H2 system as you put into it. It does not matter one iota if the primary energy source is coal, oil bio-mass nuclear or solar. It will take you 3-4 units of raw energy to acheive 1 net unit of usable hydrogen. GM backs it simply becuase the US govt was handing out free money to auto-makers to research vehicles they knew full well would never see a dealers lot. Moreover there contined support of a black-hole like H2 vehicles is useful if only so they can make noise about how they appear to be interested in clean advanced vehicles, but in reality are interested in burying them. FC vehicles are simply not practical and GM knows it.

  • skierpage

    The people who pop up saying “I like the Hyrodgen idea” and “Fuel Cell cars the answer to CO2 pollution” [sic] are either idiots or paid astroturfers, because they never engage with the engineering points that sensible people make every time this comes up.

    Hydrogen fuel cell == battery electric vehicle with expensive range extender refueled by expensive fuel from a non-existent infrastructure.

    H2 from fossil fuel -> just burn the fossil fuel in the (hybrid) car, saving the expense and inefficiency of hydrogen infrastructure.

    H2 from renewables -> sure, when renewable energy is so cheap you can afford to put $40,000 of solar on your roof to make H2 instead of $10,000 of solar to recharge batteries and investing some of the savings in more batteries. Tacking “renewable” on doesn’t make efficiency issues go away.

    Hydrogen is the wet dream of fossil fuel companies facing a world where most people refuel their cars with electricity at home for most trips .

  • the forgotten

    The volt is based on the Voltic platform. Right now it is paired to a gas ICE tuned to be a generator. The next generation will probably be paired to a smaller diesel. A fuel cell could be the future generation recharging the batteries and extending the range.

    Fuel cells can use H2 as well as CNG.

    If GM can get this perfected it could huge for the fleets like taxis, delivery, etc where fuel stations could be managed easily.

    (personally if I was GM I would be rolling this tech – Voltic – into fleet type vehicles big time.)