Vice president of R&D and Strategic Planning Larry Burns is the man of the hour at General Motors (GM) as the giant automaker, no longer the world's largest, struggles to regain its footing amid a slump and consumers clamoring for smaller vehicles. Besides GM CEO Rick Wagoner and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, perhaps no one individual is as singularly influential as the 57-year-old Burns in defining the company's all-out push into electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Burns' mission is nothing less than to change the century-old “DNA” of the automobile industry. And it is not an easy job as he discussed answers over e-mail. Read the full Q&A online.
“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,” says Burns. “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!”
What also makes Burns remarkable is that he lost his hearing in one ear during his 20s and then in the other about 10 years ago. Not surprisingly, he put his faith in technology and had a Cochlear implant, which he estimates restored 98 percent of his hearing although it is artificial. He sits on several boards of organizations researching and combating deafness.
“His ability to bounce back from what was a catastrophic event in his life and then go on to head GM's R&D and Strategic Planning and lead GM's reinvention of the automobile is something everyone continues to remark on and admire,” says Johan Willems, GM's global director of communications.
It's fair to say hydrogen fuel vehicles and the Chevy Volt electric vehicle are Burns' babies (Lutz also championed the Volt). The eyes of the automotive world are on the Volt because it will be GM's first mass-produced vehicle continuously propelled by an electric motor and battery. GM is moving with uncharacteristic speed to get Volts rolling off the line by 2010.
“Our development time for (the) 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 it off.”
Six hundred engineers and 50 designers are working on the Volt, which promises 40 miles on its 375-lb lithium-ion battery. The vehicle's 1.4l gas engine “range extender,” 110V household current and regenerative braking can all be used to charge the battery. GM claims drivers traveling 40 miles or less a day will use no gasoline. GM-volt.com, a website about the Volt not affiliated with GM and whose editor is a neurologist, buzzes with rumors and hype about the Volt. Where will its 1.4l engine be built? (Flint). When will we see the actual production model? (September).
Burns also sees nothing to prevent hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from coming to market in four to six years.
“We will likely see a true commercial fuel cell vehicle market, at relatively low volume, in the 2012-2014 time frame. There are no manufacturing 'show stoppers.' 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,” he says.
Burns has made no secret he thinks oil companies are not moving fast enough to develop a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. As this is being written, ExxonMobil was reporting $11.68 billion in record profits for its second quarter. ExxonMobil, which is not presently developing products for the budding hydrogen infrastructure, may want to change its position in the not too distant future if its executives listen to Burns.
“The auto and energy industries need to come to a common understanding of energy pathways from a 'well-to-wheels' perspective. Energy companies need to understand that we have customers who are very excited by the potential of electrically driven vehicles,” he says. That's a not-so-veiled threat that gasoline demand in the U.S. will steadily decline within a decade.
From childhood, Burns seemed destined to work at GM. He grew up midway between Detroit and Flint in Waterford, MI and attended Kettering High School. He earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from General Motors Institute, now Kettering University in Flint.
From 1920-47, Charles Kettering, for whom the schools are named, held the same job as Burns as head of GM research and among his 300 patents are the electric starter motor and leaded gasoline. Burns also holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's degree in engineering/public policy from the University of Michigan.