Larry Burns, a finalist for Design News' 2008 Engineer of the Year, is vice president of R&D and Strategic
Planning at General Motors (GM). Perhaps no one is more in the hot seat than
Burns given GM's push to develop - and more challenging, profit from - vehicles
that run on renewable energy. His mission is nothing short of the "reinvention"
of the automobile.
DN Editor-in-Chief John
Dodge sent Burns a series of questions via email for his
profile, which will appear in the Sept. 22 print issue of Design News and a couple weeks before at designnews.com. His responses are remarkably
candid, offering a forthright appraisal of where GM wants to go. He strongly
suggests GM will warrant the Volt's battery to 150,000 miles or 10 years and
offers timelines for many newer technologies to take root. He also sees
electric propulsion across GM's entire product line.
DN: The Chevy Volt is on schedule to be "complete" by 2010.
What does that mean? With 650 engineers and designers on the project, would it
be fair to characterize the Volt as GM's Manhattan Project? Compare the
development time of the Volt versus traditional timelines for new models. Isn't
the Volt the biggest project in GM history?
Burns: By complete, we mean selling Chevrolet Volt to real
customers in 2010. Volt is obviously very high-profile because of the response it
has received from our customers and stakeholders, but we also have other
important initiatives that, like Volt, are focused on reducing petroleum
dependence through energy efficiency and diversity. These include our hybrid
vehicle programs, our focus on biofuels like E85 and other electrically driven
vehicles including fuel cell-electrics. We also have important projects in
other areas focused on vehicle-to-vehicle communications and autonomous driving
technologies, which we demonstrated with our "Boss"
vehicle at the DARPA
Urban Challenge. Beyond technology, we have key initiatives like growth in
development time for Volt is very aggressive, but what makes it even more aggressive
is developing the battery in parallel with the car. Traditionally, we would
have done the battery work first, then initiated the product program. We've
chosen to do it this way to be first to market and because we believe we can pull
DN: Much has been written about the 375-lb
lithium-ion battery as the Volt's critical component. Has a final version
been chosen yet? We know GM was testing versions based on a nano-phosphate
cathode and manganese
spinel chemistry. What have you learned since the battery was moved to the Milford
Proving Grounds in January? Is the battery on track?
Burns: No, the final version hasn't been
chosen. We continue to work on the battery with our two development
partnerships, one involving LG Chem and Compact Power and the other involving
A123 Systems and Continental.
have confirmed the capability of our selected cell chemistry in terms of
safety, range, recharge time, power density and energy density. We also have a
clear understanding of how we integrate the cell in the modules and the modules
in complete battery packs. We also know how to optimally integrate the packs
into the vehicle in terms of packaging, safety and vehicle performance.
the battery development is on track. But one of the important challenges
remaining is proving ten-year, 150,000-mile life when we're developing the
battery over a three-year timeframe. Obviously, we'll protect the customer in
this regard with our warranty, but we still need to prove out the required
DN: What are the manufacturing issues around the Volt? How are they different
from vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE)?
Burns: The key manufacturing issue for the Volt
is the battery. The battery packs will each have 200-300 cells, which need to
work all the time, so the manufacturing process needs to deliver extremely high
quality from a statistical perspective. Beyond that, we believe we have pretty
deep knowledge of how to manufacture the car from our experience building the EV1,
our hybrid vehicles and our Chevrolet
Equinox Fuel Cell demonstration fleet.
DN: Can the Volt's technology be leveraged across larger
vehicles such as SUVs and full-size light trucks? Do you envision this
Burns: One of the reasons we're focused on
fuel cell and plug-in electric technology is to be able to offer electric drive
across our entire product line - from commuter vehicles to family-size vehicles.
Our Equinox Fuel Cell development vehicle is a crossover SUV. And the concept
behind it, the Chevrolet
Sequel, is also an SUV. These vehicles demonstrate the promise of fuel cell-electric
propulsion in this class size, but we will need to see improvements in battery
energy density beyond what we have today to envision plug-in vehicles significantly
larger than Volt.
DN: When do you think FCVs will be produced for sale? Is
that program going fast enough in your view? What comes first - the refueling
infrastructure or the FCVs? What manufacturing issues still stand in the way of
making FCVs? How important are hybrids relative to the Volt and FCVs?
Burns: We will likely see a true commercial
fuel cell vehicle market, at relatively low volume, in the 2012-2014 timeframe.
While GM and other OEMs have made dramatic progress on fuel cell vehicles over the
last 10 years, the vehicle alone won't allow us to realize the full benefits of
this technology. We also need the infrastructure to move faster. As I stated in
a speech in April before the National
Hydrogen Association, we have now reached a point where the
energy industry and governments must pick up their pace so we can continue to
advance in a timely manner.
are no manufacturing ‘show stoppers.' The most important challenge, beyond
developing the infrastructure, is to realize manufacturing and market cycles of
learning for first-, second- and third-generation vehicles. This will be key to
reducing cost and realizing the mature, high-volume potential of fuel cell
vehicles. We're getting prepared for our first commercial cycle of learning
with Project Driveway.
This is the largest-ever fuel cell market test and it is putting 100 Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles
into the hands of mainstream customers to see how the technology works in the
real world. The next step is to transition from market test to first commercial
generation, which will take the number of vehicles from the hundreds to the
industry is transitioning from the old automotive DNA of stand-alone vehicles
that are powered by internal combustion engines, energized by petroleum and
largely controlled mechanically. We're moving to a new DNA that encompasses
electrically driven vehicles energized by electricity or hydrogen, controlled
electronically and ‘connected' to other vehicles and the infrastructure.
work toward this new DNA, hybrids have an important role to play. Not only do they
offer additional efficiencies beyond what is available with advanced gasoline
and diesel engine technologies, but they also give us engineering,
manufacturing and market experience with electric motors, power electronics and
advanced batteries - which are all critically important components in our
future electrically driven vehicles.
DN: Long term, do you see one renewable fuel or battery
technology winning out over the other? Also long term, what's your prognosis
for the internal combustion engine? Can you forecast a crossover point for ICE
and emerging technologies such as those in the Volt and Chevy Equinox FCV?
Burns: Long term, we see energy diversity
winning out. As a full-line manufacturer marketing products around the world, we
see a combination of propulsion technologies in play - biofuels to allow continued
use of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, hybrids to make ICE vehicles more
efficient and, ultimately, electrically driven vehicles, both battery- and fuel
there are about 900 million automobiles in the world today and the industry is building
about 70 million new units each year, the ICE is going to be around for awhile.
Even in the longer term, some segments will continue to be best served by
gasoline and diesel engines so GM is working very hard to develop technologies
that will enable the ICE to reach its upper-bound limits for efficiency and
cleanliness. But the real key to addressing the energy challenge is to reduce the
automobile's current 96-percent dependence on petroleum through energy diversity
made possible by alternative forms of propulsion.
on the market crossover point, or the ‘tipping point,' is the right way to think
about these new technologies rather than trying to forecast the market penetration
of different technologies 40 years out. At GM,
we define the tipping point as the point at which markets can sustain the
growth of a new technology from both an energy cost and a vehicle cost
perspective. We believe the tipping point for biofuels based on non-food
sources of biomass is 3-5 years away. For Volt and fuel cell vehicles, if you
factor in three commercial cycles of learning 3-5 years long each, you end up
with the tipping point occurring in 10-15 years. Some may say this is a long
time, but when you consider a tipping point implies people are willing to buy a
technology because it is what they truly aspire to own and it provides the best
value for its price, it's still a very compelling opportunity.
DN: With your background in public policy, should the
government be doing more to promote alternative propulsion technologies like
fuel cells and the Volt technology? What could or should they be doing?
Burns: Government is an equal partner with
the auto industry and the energy industry in realizing the transformation to
advanced propulsion vehicles. Government needs to proactively support
development of advanced technology and play an important role in funding
demonstration programs early on, when the technology is not fully matured but we
need to gain real market learnings.
also going to need government help in the way of incentives. It should provide
appropriate consumer incentives and be a major early customer by purchasing
large numbers of vehicles for government fleets. Government also needs to take
appropriate actions to ensure the energy infrastructure develops in concert
with the vehicle technology and the necessary codes, standards and permitting
requirements are in place to bring the technology to market.
DN: You've been outspoken in getting Big Oil to speed up
their development of a hydrogen production and fueling infrastructure. How do
you convince them? It seems like Shell
and Chevron of
companies their size are the only two oil giants actively working on a hydrogen
infrastructure (of course, the industrial gases are, too). What has to happen
to make FCVs a reality from an infrastructure perspective?
Burns: The best way to realize a hydrogen
infrastructure is to have the auto and energy industries and governments
aligned with a proactive and collective will to accelerate progress. The auto
and energy industries need to see this as a business growth opportunity and
governments need to see it as a way to address energy security and
environmental goals. One of the reasons we've been working closely with Shell is its
view of the hydrogen economy is similar to ours in the sense that we both see it
as a huge business growth opportunity.
the auto and energy industries need to come to a common understanding of energy
pathways from a ‘well-to-wheels' perspective. And energy companies need to understand
we have customers who are very excited by the potential of electrically driven
DN: I heard you speak at MIT a few years ago where you
described a 6- or 12-inch-thick chassis with all mechanicals built and an
electric motor on each wheel. How close are we to that?
Burns: Our Sequel
concept, which was the first fuel cell vehicle to drive 300 miles without
refueling, is the embodiment of this concept. Sequel's 11-inch chassis incorporates
all of its propulsion and chassis system components including the fuel cell
system, hydrogen storage tanks, wheel motors and by-wire steering and braking. This
vehicle confirms the emergence of the new automotive DNA, and its promise to be
sustainable and better in all aspects than the internal combustion engine,
petroleum and mechanical control genetics that have characterized automobiles
for the past century.
DN: What is the hardest thing about your job? What is the
Burns: The best thing is being able to work
with people who have deep knowledge on a wide range of technologies. It's also
very exciting to be in a position to influence transformational change in automobiles
and their energy sources with the goal of making the world a better place, while
extending the ‘freedom' benefits of the automobile to more people.
hardest thing is bringing about this transformation in an industry that has had
the same automotive DNA for 100 years. It can be very difficult to get all the
people who have an interest in solving the problems of the automobile aligned
on solutions - not just within the company but also other stakeholders outside
GM. Achieving a critical mass around a solution and maintaining constancy of
purpose can be huge challenges. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, never,
never, never, never give up!
DN: Please add anything you like about the future of
Burns: I think the future of the automobile
is extraordinarily exciting. The industry has tremendous growth potential since
only about 13 percent of the people in the world today are vehicle owners. Wherever
we go, we find people aspiring to the freedom that comes from owning an
automobile, and I am confident the technology exists to enable sustainable
growth. To be where I am in the auto industry when all of this is happening is