As he talks about fuel cells, General Motors Co.'s Charlie Freese pauses to point out something: that the conversation is taking place at all is significant.
In the past decade, GM and several other automakers have pushed development of fuel cell vehicles. But many in the industry doubt that the technology ever will be ready for prime time.
The Obama administration is emphasizing battery-powered electric vehicles as its favored green option. Meanwhile, GM has had a bumpy ride over the past couple of years.
Yet the company's fuel cell research continues.
"Through it all, we're here," says Freese, executive director of GM's global fuel cell activities. "The company went through a bankruptcy last year, but we retained our fuel cell team. We kept this project in place."
Projects also remain in place for rivals such as Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota. Although such efforts receive minimal publicity compared to the enormous interest in battery EVs, automakers are moving toward a retail launch of fuel cell vehicles in Southern California in 2015.
The plan is inching forward with state-supported hydrogen refueling stations coming online today. California has only two or three open to public use but will add three to five this year, followed by two or three more in early 2011, says Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. About 10 a year will be added before 2015.
"The phase we're at right now is that the automakers are preparing to enter an early market for fuel cells," Dunwoody says. "The vehicles are there -- the automakers have done a tremendous job of building good cars. What we have to do now is build the infrastructure."