DETROIT - General Motors is spending about $100 million a year to get a fuel cell vehicle into mass production by the end of the decade. Other automakers also have multimillion-dollar programs to create the vehicles.
But Craig Marks doesn't expect to see fuel cell autos in mass production by 2010.
Marks' opinion carries some weight. Nearly 40 years ago, he was the chief engineer on GM's Electrovan - the world's first fuel cell-powered automobile - at a time when fuel cell technology truly was rocket science. NASA used fuel cells to generate electricity and oxygen for astronauts.
Many of the obstacles facing GM and other automakers working to bring hydrogen-powered fuel cells to market haven't changed since the mid-1960s. Among them:
Marks, 72, and many industry analysts believe there is little chance these problems will be solved in the next eight years. A more realistic time frame for mass production of fuel cells is 2020, Marks said.
"Powerplant development happens over decades. It doesn't happen in a few years," said Marks in an interview in his Bloomfield Hills, Mich., home.
Marks, who is tall, lean and soft-spoken, didn't stop following fuel cells after the Electrovan project ended in 1968. Today, he is chairman of the board of trustees of Altarum, a nonprofit Ann Arbor, Mich., consulting organization that deals with environmental issues. Marks said if he were a young engineer today, he'd be working on perfecting fuel cell technology.
"Fuel cells are going to be in a whole lot of other applications, successful and economical, long before we get them into automobiles," he said. "I spent 27 years with General Motors. During that whole time, gas turbines were 10 years away. I finally came to realize that if you look at the development of most radically new powerplants, they take place over many decades."