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.