After years of intensive research and development, General Motors Corp. says it now is ready to concentrate on finding a way to produce hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles for the mass market.
GM is expected to announce today that it will reassign more than 500 engineers working on fuel cells and fuel cell vehicle development from the automaker's research operation to its powertrain and global engineering divisions.
Hydrogen, while still controversial as a means for solving the nation's energy crisis, is seen by many as the auto industry's best long-term opportunity to replace petroleum as a chief means of powering vehicles. Virtually all of the world's major automakers are racing to build fuel cell vehicles.
GM says reassigning the engineers signals production of commercially viable hydrogen vehicles may be only a few years away, though many scientists and others remain skeptical.
"This says, 'Not only have we done it in a lab, we're ready to do it for real,'?" said Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development. "We have worked on this fuel cell technology long enough and hard enough to be able to start to move this into production."
The employees, located mostly at GM facilities outside Rochester, N.Y., and Mainz-Kastel, Germany, won't move but will now report to leaders on the manufacturing side of the business. Another 150 workers will continue working on the research side to develop next-generation fuel cell technology.
GM will now focus on getting fuel cells into vehicles and making sure they meet safety and durability requirements.
GM wants to eventually use fuel cells in its Chevrolet Volt, which debuted as a plug-in hybrid at this year's Detroit auto show. The Volt, still years away from going on sale, is being designed to run on a lithium ion battery that would be mated with a hydrogen fuel cell system as well as other power sources.
"It's a real vote of confidence to see how much progress we've made," said Britta Gross, GM's manager of fuel cell commercialization at GM's Tech Center in Warren. "More of the top leadership is getting engaged. This is exactly what makes a program real."
Automakers are battling each other for bragging rights over the newest, greenest technologies, dispatching high-tech test vehicles to celebrities, lawmakers and the media and in big cities.
Hydrogen vehicles are attractive because they offer dramatically lower net carbon dioxide emissions while potentially reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
But hurdles include the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cells and the lack of hydrogen fueling stations around the country.
"They can come out with these vehicles tomorrow, but can they come out with ones that will meet the demands of 99 percent of the public?" said Spencer Quong, a senior vehicle analysts for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which lobbies for more environmentally friendly vehicles. "Infrastructure is going to be a much bigger issue than people are being led to believe."
Undeterred by the still-significant challenges, GM and others are forging ahead.
GM recently hosted reporters on a 300-mile road trip in a pair of fuel cell powered Chevrolet Equinox sport utility vehicles to prove they could be driven that far without refueling and would be practical for daily driving.
DaimlerChrysler AG touts its $1?billion-plus investment in fuel cell technology and the fact that it has more hydrogen vehicles on the road than any other automaker.
Honda Motor Co. last month unveiled its next-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Honda FCX, saying it would begin producing a small number next year for use in Japan and the United States.
Critics of the auto industry's focus on hydrogen say it is diverting attention and resources away from more immediate efforts to making internal combustion engines cleaner and more efficient. And even those who are working on hydrogen cars realize it will be a while before many average Americans are driving them.
Hydrogen cars for the everyday driver remain years, if not decades, away, said Bill Reinert, Toyota's U.S. advanced technology chief. Toyota is developing a hydrogen vehicle and has about 20 test cars on the road at any given time.
Reinert believes the obstacles are too great to produce more than a few thousands cars and trucks by the end of the decade.
Only a major event such as a fundamental change in U.S. energy policy or a failure of the nation's gasoline system would speed up hydrogen's entry into the mass market, he said.
"Hydrogen is probably the gold standard that we'd like to achieve," Reinert said. "The fact of the matter is that the market won't be ready nor will the infrastructure be ready."