Larry Burns, VP GM Research and Development
Larry Burns, VP GM Research and Development. Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

Toronto, Ontario – Just in case you hadn’t noticed at the pumps, gasoline is doing ridiculous things, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better – if it ever does. And all that is before you start to factor in other critical issues, including environmental concerns and foreign dependency.

All of that weighs on Larry Burns, Vice-President of Research and Development and Strategic Planning of General Motors. From his office at the corporation’s R&D Center in Warren, Michigan, he oversees GM’s advanced technology, innovation programs and corporate strategy. I had the opportunity to meet with him in Toronto recently, when he sat down with a small number of writers from various outlets, including Autos, prior to presenting a keynote speech to the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association Conference.

Listing all of Burns’ credentials would take many pixels; highlights include receiving the Kettering University’s Engineering Alumni Achievement Award for contributions to the engineering profession; the Alumni Merit Award from the University of Michigan; the ASM International Medal for the Advancement of Research; and the Society of Plastics Engineers Global Engineering Leadership Award. Having lived for a year with no hearing at all, he also contributes to several associations for the deaf, and in 2002 was awarded the National Campaign for Hearing Health Leadership Award from the Deafness Research Foundation.

On the future of automobiles: “As we reach GM’s 100th anniversary (in 2008), it’s pretty exciting to look at 100 years of technology. The automobile has had the same DNA for the last 100 years; it’s petroleum, it’s mechanical. I really believe that DNA is about to change. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, we had all kinds of DNA: coal, diesel, petroleum. The Model T came in and petroleum became dominant. It’s important to think about the car itself and the systems in which it operates. We think it will be powered by electric motors, which may be on the wheels themselves. We’re looking at hydrogen. We’re looking at digital controls, and we think cars will be connected digitally, so they’ll be removed from congestion and they won’t crash. I think the single most important technology we are working on is a car that doesn’t crash. We can change what the car is doing. The next ten years could determine the next 100 years.”

On the globalization of the auto industry: “We (GM) now act as one global organization. We used to have redundant departments all over the world, but now we are trying to grow our R&D globally. We embrace diversity, and are trying to create centres with local talent. We believe diversity drives competition, and we are embracing the differences in the world. We want each locality to drive to its strength. Energy diversity can be different in every country, and even in every city. What we like about this diversity strategy is that it takes into account a car for every person and purpose.”

On a car for the purpose: “The average speed in some cities is 12 mph. So why do you need a car that does 120? And cars with large footprints sit most of the time; I’ve read estimates that 20 per cent of miles (driven) in Manhattan are people looking for parking spots.

“We need to look at energy diversity. When I ask people in the U.S. where their electricity comes from, they don’t know. Canadians generally do. So in areas like Toronto and Montreal, where it’s hydroelectricity, we can look at electric cars because it’s not generated by coal.”

On replacing petroleum: “I would hate to be a smaller auto company right now, and have to make a decision to go with ethanol, or plug-in electric vehicles, or whatever. No one has a crystal ball and can say what will be next. We’re working with hybrids, plug-in hybrids and flexible fuels. It’s expensive, but it’s the right thing to do.”

On biofuels: “In the near term, we’re looking at fuel from waste. We commissioned two major studies and both came back and said there’s enough biomass that by 2030, we could offset 40 per cent of U.S. demand. This is not food.”

“We have a system where bugs eat the waste material and excrete ethanol, at a cost of $1 per gallon and with less water (than conventional production). We picked that after studying fifty companies, and GM has invested in it. I’d advise the governor of Michigan to buy all of Ontario’s garbage, to turn it into ethanol! We believe biofuels are good, but with that, we must improve the internal combustion engine to become as efficient as a diesel, but cost-effective.”

“The stories on corn shortages are led by petroleum lobbyists. We find that most of these food scares are from stakeholders in the petroleum industry, and it amazes me how these stories can get spun. You look at a box of Corn Flakes, and five per cent of the cost is the corn. This is getting silly.”

On biofuel infrastructure: “We have 170,000 gas stations in the U.S., but in major cities, you’re never two miles away from (an) ethanol (station). You don’t have to change 170,000 stations (to ethanol); you only have to change 20,000. Classic Chevrolet and Hummer (dealership) put in an ethanol station and I think it was a historic event. We have 7,000 GM dealers in the U.S., and this could be a business proposition. Wal-Mart could get into it. OnStar could tell you where the closest one is. We need to get the fuels to the customer, and we have to push these so that the consumer takes one of these choices. This can be a business case for companies to get into the fuel business.”

On electric vehicles: “We started the Volt project with the propulsion and the battery technology at the same time. The battery had to store energy, run the car and be safe, and battery technology that covered all these basics finally started about three years ago. We learned from the EV1 that range is essential, that you can’t sell a car that will leave drivers stranded.”

“Battery technology didn’t get where it needed to be because previously there was no need of it. The laws of physics will dictate what you can put into a battery, and what it can store. There are 200 separate cells in (the Volt’s) battery, and they must operate in cold and hot so the temperature is uniform in all cells, and the charge is uniform in all. These are very sophisticated levels, and we’re not there yet. For example, how do you prove in two years that a battery’s going to last ten years? I’d rather be doing what we’re doing, but there is room for improvement.”

On diesels: “Will we see small diesels in North America? I won’t say we won’t explore these, but we don’t think diesels are the answer. The U.S. standards are significant targets and that raises the cost. Ninety per cent of the industry is gasoline; if they all become diesels overnight and the goal was to keep these petroleum vehicles at these levels, how long would we buy? Ten years from now, we’d be right back where we started, and it wouldn’t fix the problem. We think they are important in Europe, but in North America, they’re either ‘image’ vehicles or work vehicles.”

On hydrogen: “With our Cascada technology, hydrogen and ethanol creation are similar, it’s just different in the final few steps. In future, it’s possible that hydrogen could be produced at home, with three units that would be priced into the mortgage. I’m not worrying about infrastructure. You make hydrogen at home, and then you just need stations on the highway.”

“I think the infrastructure is easier than it’s made out to be, and that’s because the petroleum industry has led people to believe this. They have people thinking you need to replace all 170,000 (gasoline) stations. It needs about 20,000 pumps at $50,000 per pump. It’s $8 million to refine a day’s petroleum. That’s $24 billion for a hydrogen infrastructure for the whole nation, versus $8 billion for one refinery. The best thing possible for the petroleum industry is the status quo; it will only be willing to invest when it finds a product that will produce the same profit.”

“Fifty-three million metric tons of hydrogen are made now. It’s mostly used for fertilizer, and to take the sulphur out of gasoline. Alberta is making gobs of hydrogen because the oil sands are not sweet, and it’s used to take the sulphur out of the crude. In 2011, the petroleum companies will produce enough hydrogen to fuel 175 million vehicles. The stuff is there, but it’s not being used. This is an important and complicated subject, and it’s not conducive to sound bytes. Hydrogen is safe, and it must be offered as a feasible alternative alongside gasoline.”

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