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G.M.’s Fuel-Cell Champion to Retire

Author: M Abdul Rehman // Category:

It’s hard to imagine the phrase “reinvention of the automobile” being spoken at General Motors’ headquarters without it being connected to Lawrence D. Burns, the company’s vice president for research and development and strategic planning. But Mr. Burns, who was the company’s, is retiring effective Oct. 1, to be replaced by a man he hired away from Ford in 2001, Alan Taub.

Mr. Burns, 58, referred frequently to “taking the automobile out of the environmental equation.” He led G.M.’s hydrogen fuel-cell efforts through a series of increasingly capable concept vehicles, from the Opel-based HydroGen1 in 2000, to the and in 2002, to the, with up to 300-mile range, in 2005.

Project Driveway, begun in 2008, put a fleet of on the road in Southern California, Washington and New York City. The company set 2010 as a target for technology that could be ready for the market, but it’s unclear if that goal will be realized.

“I started thinking about it when Rick resigned,” he said, referring to G.M.’s former chief executive, Rick Wagoner, who was replaced by Fritz Henderson this year. Mr. Burns said he had worked closely with Mr. Wagoner since the 1990s “and very much admire him.”

“Fritz is an equally capable leader,” he continued, “but I just though it was the right time to make this decision.”

G.M. is still pursuing its hydrogen dreams, but Mr. Burns admitted that the company, which has invested $1.5 billion since the 1990s but is now deeply in debt, “can’t pay for its vision all by itself.” In May, Energy Secretary Steven Chu ordered a for hydrogen research, a decision Mr. Burns said he hoped will be reversed in Congress.

Mr. Burns also explained that “several generations” of further development are necessary before a national network of pumping stations and affordable vehicles are in place. Fuel-cell cars would have to be sold today for “more than the customer wants to pay,” he said.

Asked to look at G.M.’s fleet in 10 years, Mr. Burns said that gasoline and diesel would still be dominant fuels, but battery cars and “extended-drive” vehicles like the would also be part of the mix. “I think in 10 years they can be very competitive with internal combustion,” he said.

Mr. Burns is writing a book for M.I.T. Press called, naturally enough, “Reinventing the Automobile.” He said he had no other immediate plans, beyond spending time backpacking in the Rocky Mountains with his wife.

He considers another job at an auto company unlikely, though he added he would “never say never.” Academia is a possibility, he said. Mr. Burns’ most recent initiative at G.M. was , a collaboration with Segway on a two-person city vehicle that uses advanced communications technology to help negotiate urban congestion. Mr. Burns said that the “connectivity” aspect of transportation continues to engage him. “When I did my Ph.D research at Berkeley, I found that people bond emotionally with their cars because of the freedom they offer,” he said. “But now my kids would give up their vehicles before their cellphones or PDAs.”

Mr. Burns, who joined G.M. in 1969, said in a phone interview that his tenure as head of research and development at the company was longer than any executive since Charles Kettering. His departure was voluntary, he said, and is not related to the company’s corporate-level downsizing (though G.M. also announced consolidation of global research and development into product development as part of an effort to build “a leaner, more efficient, more agile” company).

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