Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
February 16th, 2007

A Man Who Wants to Change the World

It was great to meet with a number of the top executives at GM prior to the Chicago Auto Show to learn about the Chevrolet Volt, the company commitment to developing battery technology and to really find out how committed this company is and will be in the area of cleaner automobiles.  However there is one interview that truly stands out that needs to be shared. 

Larry Burns is GM’s Vice President, Research & Development and Strategic Planning.  Simply put, this means he is THE person responsible for leading GM into the future of clean transportation. It is Larry’s job to initiate and oversee  research, lead, innovate, prod, motivate  and yes, seduce all those he comes in contact with to buy into a new vision of automotive transportation.

At the outset of our conversation, I made it clear that I was very impressed with GM’s commitment to the Chevrolet Volt and supportive of the seeming commitment to market ever more efficient and green vehicles. That being said, I challenged him to show me what was on his drawing board that was more than just an aggregation of ways to increase over all fleet MPG by degrees and do enough green initiatives for the marketing department to be happy.  I wanted to hear plans for transformation, not incremental change.  I got what I asked for. 

Larry wants to change the automotive world, simple as that.  As our conversation went on, he became ever more impassioned about creating alternatives to the internal combustion engine; that currently 98% of all vehicles run on petroleum energy only, which does not make sense if we are going through peak oil.  He said that the future of vehicular power was blended fuel, electric batteries, hydrogen and fuel cells.  He started to pull out pages of a Power Point he had presented earlier in the day and I found myself being educated on the possibilities that lie ahead.

He spoke animatedly about the Chevrolet Sequel and the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell cars that GM is currently producing in very limited numbers, and at probably extremely high cost, that  showed the way.  I found that I couldn’t digest all the information as fast as he was presenting it, so I asked if he could give me his presentation. 

Larry gave me a hand labeled disk copy of his presentation at my request, and though they asked me to not show to anyone, they knew that I was going to write about our interview.  So while I will not show it, I will quote from it here, as it is as good a presentation on the world today as it relates to energy and the possible future of automotive transportation as I have ever seen.  After an extensive set up on the state of energy in the world today, he provides some GM specifics:

“The Chevrolet Sequel is the most technologically advanced vehicle in the world.  It is specifically designed around hydrogen fuel cell technology.  The propulsion system combines GM’s fourth generation fuel cell with three electric motors and a lithium-ion to give jet-like acceleration characteristics and all-wheel drive with side-to-side torque control’ [This was followed with a video of the Sequel being driven]” 

“Project Driveway, a new test program that will put our latest fuel cell-electric vehicle — the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell — into the hands of customers next year….its technology is seamlessly integrated and has been fully engineered and tested to meet all existing government standards.  General Motors is building 100 of these vehicles and will be placing them with customers later this year. Project Driveway constitutes the first meaningful market-test of fuel cell-electric vehicles anywhere.”

These slides were followed by a couple of incredible slides.  Here are some highlights: 

“By keeping our vehicles quite simple, storing hydrogen and electricity on board the vehicle, and using electric drive and fuel cells, we have the opportunity to use every energy pathway — from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

Our vehicles will emit zero emissions.  And when the hydrogen and electricity is made from a renewable source, the entire system- from energy generation to torque at the wheels — will be zero emissions. 

This type of propulsion replaces complex gasoline, diesel and hybrid systems with a single system that has only 1/10th as many moving parts as a conventional power train system.

The design flexibility enabled by scalable fuel cells, electric batteries, and electronic controls will drive new vehicle designs and provide the potential to lower costs” 

And, finally:

“When you connect all the dots, this is truly a compelling opportunity to reinvent the automobile and the automobile business, and accelerate industry growth in a sustainable way” 

This guy works for General Motors, and on top of that he reports directly to the Chairman Wagoner!

My interview with Larry was scheduled for fifteen minutes.  One hour later I walked out of our meeting excited and with a mild sense of transformation and real possibility.  Not only had I learned a lot from an incredibly intelligent man, but I had just met someone on a mission.  If all of us who feel an urgency to get on with the job of slowing global warming and ending our insane dependency on petroleum could describe the person to have be in a true position of  power at a major automobile company, it would be Larry Burns.

The people I most like to spend time with are people who have, can or want to change the world.  My hope is that GM will have the long range intelligence and commitment to let Larry Burns do just that.

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