The year 2010 is seven years away, but General Motors soon will have to make big decisions about its plans for reaching volume production of fuel cell vehicles by that year.
Byron McCormick, 56, executive director of GM's fuel cell activities, says the company still has far to go in reducing costs, lining up suppliers and improving performance. He spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
What are the chances that GM will begin producing fuel cell vehicles in quantity by the stated goal of 2010?
I don't wake up every morning and say if it's 2011 and not 2010 I'll be fired.
I'm looking at the kind of progression and feeling that is what we are targeting right now.
If it's 2020, we ought to restructure our program because it's not fair to the investors, it's not fair to the possible customers.
We are getting governments involved to try and help get the hydrogen infrastructure in place. It wouldn't be fair to any of those folks if we didn't think we could do it by 2010.
Larry Burns (GM's r&d chief) and I are absolutely focused on making noticeable progress on the commercialization effort and every two or three years seeing if we are there.
How is GM going to bring down the cost of fuel cells while delivering vehicles with roughly the same acceleration and top speed as gasoline-powered cars?
The cost side is what we are really driving at. We are developing concrete plans to address the cost of the membrane, catalyst, assembly, yield and all that - not only how much catalyst and how big, but how active you make it. I'm sort of implying that there is some very neat stuff happening there.
We could shrink the fuel cell stack and put less platinum down and make it less costly.
I have to say that we don't have it in hand, but on the basic physics and chemistry we are getting pretty positive that we are going to see costs come down.
You've been spending a lot of money each year on fuel cells. When will you feel pressure to bring out something marketable?
The pressure is always there. If you listen to a couple of (GM CEO) Rick Wagoner speeches, he thinks about fuel cells as an option. If you are managing it as a part of an options portfolio, the question is not that you have to make a return tomorrow or next month.
The issue is investing appropriately to learn enough to know when to pull the trigger on the option. There is pressure.
I think we have very adequate funding. Our real goal is to see that we have automotive costs down around the end of the decade.
Are the current political situation and our reliance on imported oil factors in the fuel cell effort?
In terms of what I do, no. The things that are happening affect me less, but they make my message more relevant.
Governments have four things on their minds.
The first is sensitivity to the availability of petroleum - either short-term disruptions or big-time disruptions.
The second thing is balance of payments and current accounts deficits. So in China they tell me this is really important.
The next thing is local emissions, and the fourth thing is greenhouse gases.
The nice thing about fuel cells and hydrogen is that they are a potential solution for all four.
That makes it an exciting endgame.