Published October 12, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
Today it’s the Chevy Volt that General Motors touts as its ultimate gas-saving and environmental solution. In a decade from now could it be fuel cell vehicles?
We’ve heard “10-year” projections before, but as GM’s head of fuel cell programs, Charlie Freese, commented on GM’s plans to relocate fuel cell development from its Honeoye Falls facility in New York to Pontiac, Mich., he said fuel cells might be commercially viable by 2022.
The program GM has worked on since 1969, will see its efforts consolidated by the first quarter of 2013 at its global powertrain engineering base, according to Reuters, and GM is offering to move 220 employees from their work south of Rochester to Pontiac.
Freese said since gasoline and diesel technology is already researched and developed there, transferring to Michigan ongoing endeavors into making hydrogen fuel cells feasible will cut GM's costs, and add to the brain trust, allowing resource sharing across these various platforms.
"The ability to take someone that knows how to do a turbo charger on a diesel engine and apply them to the compressor on a fuel cell, those kinds of things provide a lot of advantages," he told Reuters.
A few years ago – before GM shifted its publicity to focus on now-for-sale and pending battery-powered vehicles – it was showing running fuel cell prototypes, and indeed it still does have fuel cell projects ongoing.
Then as now, GM fully admits infrastructure is lacking, durability is still a question, and precious materials involved in their production make them cost prohibitive.
While enthusiasts debate the ultimate viability of the concept of fuel cell vehicles, the debate appears settled among the automakers and it’s not a matter of if, just a question of when? Or at least this is what they appear to be saying.
Just as most major automakers are, GM is quietly plugging away at a technology that it says could be a money making, zero-emissions, sustainable endeavor in due time.
Freese acknowledges as we’ve heard others say as well, that by 2015-2016, the uphill battle toward commercialization will begin, with a few automakers bringing products to market –
and Hyundai is actually starting now – but GM has not announced any plans just yet.
"The first generation of these cars won't be profitable," Freese said. "It's going to take two to three generations before that technology cost curve matures to the point that it can be a competitive technology with some of the other alternative power trains."
The year 2022 is a conditional educated guess Freese offered based on infrastructure being sufficiently available for refueling.
Also needed will be sufficient sales volume to help reduce costs to develop and produce these vehicles.
It’s a chicken and egg scenario to be sure, but one GM and others are nonetheless spending significant time, money, and effort to overcome.