"We have a network of relationships with scientists and engineers who take a deep dive into particular areas, and we benefit from that network." - Larry Burns, General Motors
GM's hydrogen-powered Sequel concept, shown at the Detroit auto show in January, was designed to run using compressed hydrogen stored in three tanks.
The tanks are housed in the lower portion of the vehicle, sometimes referred to as the skateboard.
Hydrogen powers a fuel cell, which in turn creates electricity for motors that drive the wheels.
Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and design and strategic planning, discussed the company's hydrogen future with Special Correspondent Tim Moran during a flight to Detroit from California after a tour of Sandia National Laboratories and Hughes Research Laboratories.
Both laboratories are among contractors doing research for GM.
Several years ago, you said that more GM in-house research would be applied to developing this technology and that less basic research would take place. Has that happened?
If you look at the things we've just seen - the relationship with Sandia, the work that's going on at Hughes - you see examples of how we have accomplished that.
We have a network of relationships with scientists and engineers who take a deep dive into particular areas, and we benefit from that network.
GM overcame the challenge of storing hydrogen in its Sequel concept vehicle by using three fuel tanks.
We have what we call Key Strategic Technologies.
There are 10 of them.
We've never published the list in its entirety because we think it's somewhat competitive in nature, that is, exactly what it is we prioritize in our work.
You can be assured that hydrogen storage is one of them. That is a major program.
Fuel cells are another.
And batteries and power handling?
I would say powertrain systems - the controls aspect of powertrain systems in particular - is very important no matter which underlying power technology you use.
Controls is very much at the heart of what is going on out there right now.
Is it easier to go outside the company to do basic research?
Sometimes you've got to control your own destiny, but you don't have to do it all.
You don't have to have the (scientific) paper published just by General Motors people for it to be beneficial. In fact, it would be way too slow.
If we want to ramp up a major nanocomposites effort in Warren, by the time we recruited people, equipped their laboratory and had them become familiar with General Motors, it would be five years, minimum, maybe a decade. And by then it's way too late.
I view General Motors as one laboratory. And as a scientist, you have this whole company at your disposal to go out and discover important questions.
Once you figure out the question, you're 90 percent of the way home.
Now, in Sandia, they're working on the hydrogen project as a work-made-for-others project.
GM owns the rights to intellectual property that come out of that.
But when it takes off, it's going to end up being very hard to hold onto, to hide the basics from competitors.
How do you retain your lead? Won't others just copy your efforts?
I think we don't look at the intellectual property as the most competitive advantage. The ability to create intellectual property may be a competitive advantage, but most importantly, it assures you that you're creating know-how.
You're a smart buyer, if you have that know-how.
An auto company that hasn't gotten into fuel cells in a big way (that is) watching General Motors on fuel cells and hydrogen - we're obviously pretty open about our progress - how do they know what to buy? A lot of these technologies, right on the frontier, is where you need that knowledge.
At the end, the design and validation of the fuel cell system that we're working on comes down to picking materials, picking temperatures, pressures, humidity and picking the manufacturing process that will allow you to get the durability.
The interdependence between the energy storage system onboard helps you control the extremes to which the fuel cell stack is subject, and the power density of the fuel cell stack, the efficiency of the electric motors.
That has something to say about how much hydrogen you have to store. What's the best combination?
Suddenly, you have to go out and buy components that make that system work.
True know-how is very important, especially in the automotive business where you have to make the car run for 150,000 miles in extreme environments.
For a time it appeared that automotive was not all that attractive for researchers. Has that changed?
There are a couple of observations I'd like to make. First, just 12 percent of the people in the world own a car. So the auto industry is a tremendous growth industry.
The other 88 percent have indicated they would pretty much love to have the functionality of a car.
I'd love to try to get the automobile industry out of this rust-belt mindset and into a growth-industry mindset.
The other thing is how technologies are converging so that the DNA of the car is fundamentally ripe to be changed.
We've had the DNA for a hundred years. There are very few industries out there that are stuck with the same DNA for a hundred years.
We're seeing hydrogen fuel cells, electronic controls and software, telematics, along with materials coming together to create an all-new DNA for a car. That's why we've positioned this as the reinvention of the automobile.
Third is the notion that the car sits idle 90 percent of the time. People put a lot of capital, their own personal money on the table to own a car.
If you were running a plant, you'd never feel that 10 percent utilization was acceptable.
The fact that there are 23 processors on a Cadillac XLR that could be networked into the computing grid to generate value for you, and the fact that you're using the grid wirelessly to gain access to that computing power opens up opportunity to think about cars not just as forms of transportation, but as mobile power information platforms.
So the combination of some very exciting technologies, with the complete reinvention of the automobile in our lives, I think can be pretty seductive for some technology careers.