Former GM r&d chief Burns 'couldn't be more excited' about EV progress

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The push for vehicle electrification is sputtering, if you judge by paltry sales, technology malfunctions and endangered governmental funding.

But to Larry Burns, those are minor bumps in the road. In fact, they're encouraging.

"I couldn't be more excited about the progress that has taken place," Burns said in a quick conversation after he spoke today at the NADA/IHS Automotive Forum on the eve of the New York auto show.

Burns retired in 2009 as General Motors' r&d chief. While at GM, he was always a fascinating interview, spinning visions of fuel cell vehicles and self-driving electric pod vehicles.

Turns out he hasn't changed much, except that today he's doing his future-thinking at places such as the University of Michigan and Google -- which has tested a self-driving car on public roads.

Burns regaled the audience with his trademark corny jokes and a sobering vision: that the petroleum powered car, long term, can't dominate the motor vehicle mix as it does today. He urged audience members to embrace the change to self-driving EVs, car sharing and the like.

Afterward, he brushed off the current woes of EVs, saying he had "seen it all, from the euphoria over the EV-1 to Who Killed the Electric Car? What's important, Burns says, is that new types of vehicles are on the road -- and that engineers are seeing real-world results that will lead to next-gen improvements.

But what about slow sales? What about repeated production cuts, for instance, to the Chevrolet Volt?

"If the scorecard is overall volume, you are disappointed. If the scorecard is, 'What do we know that we didn't know before?' we're doing great," he said. "What I judge is the learning that we've done collectively, as an industry and as a world."

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com. -- Follow Dave on

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