Greening GM

October 2, 2008 by Abby Cohn

Larry Burns (Ph.D.'78 CEE), vice president of research and development and strategic planning at General Motors. Photo courtesy of General Motors Larry Burns (Ph.D.’78 CEE), vice president of research and development and strategic planning at General Motors. (Photo by General Motors.)In the fall of 1975, a young General Motors engineer named Larry Burns loaded up his customized Chevy and headed to Berkeley. The Michigan native came west for doctoral studies in transportation engineering. “It’s an area that has served me quite well,” he says.

Today, Burns (Ph.D.’78 CEE) is in charge of next-generation cars and other leading-edge technology for the world’s largest automaker. “I wake up every day focused on reinventing the automobile,” he says. Burns, who joined GM in 1969, became the company’s vice president of research and development and strategic planning 10 years ago. A 2007 New York Times article called him “the most visible executive at the American auto companies on green issues.”

Burns likens his mission to restructuring the DNA of the car. The basic building blocks of the automobile—a mechanical system with a petroleum-powered internal combustion engine—have been around for a century, he says. “That is about to change radically. We have to simply get off 96 percent dependence on petroleum” fueling the planet’s 900 million cars.

As he steers that course, Burns is calling for “energy diversity” in new car systems. At GM, where he oversees 700 engineers, he’s translating that goal into such projects as the plug-in Chevy Volt, hydrogen fuel cell cars and vehicles powered by ethanol and other alternative fuels. “The internal combustion engine is not going to be the only game in town,” Burns says. “I see the tipping point coming.”

The Volt, scheduled to go into production in 2010, figures prominently in that prediction. Powered by a lithium-ion battery, the car is designed to travel 40 miles on a charge. For longer trips, a small internal combustion engine will run the car’s generator and recharge the battery. Along with its environmentally friendly features, Burns says, the Volt will be a lot of fun to drive.

The car’s main challenge? A 400-pound battery that Burns compares to an “offensive lineman.” It needs to be safe, affordable and designed to last 10 years. Development work is on a fast track. “We need to get the first generation out there,” he says. “We need to learn from that as fast as possible.”

Virgin Atlantic Airways will start using General Motors' zero-emission fuel cell cars as limousines for VIP passengers in the United States. Photo courtesy of General Motors Virgin Atlantic Airways will start using General Motors’ zero-emission fuel cell cars as limousines for VIP passengers in the United States. (Photo by General Motors.)Fuel cell technology, which generates electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, is another high-priority project. Last year, a GM fuel cell car took a 300-mile trip without refueling, producing water vapor as its only emission. Building on that success, GM has distributed 100 Equinox fuel cell vehicles to consumers in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. The market test, called Project Driveway, is intended to generate real-world research that will be incorporated into successive generations of design.

But in a presentation this spring at the National Hydrogen Association’s annual meeting in Sacramento, Burns warned, “We have reached a stage where we cannot continue to make progress solely on our own.” He called on the energy industry and government officials to help by opening more hydrogen fueling stations. Within the next six to eight years, Burns hopes to introduce a second-generation Equinox, deploying thousands of the fuel cell cars onto U.S. roadways.

Burns also sees promise in such alternatives as ethanol from nonfood sources for fueling cars. Biofuels are “not the only answer, but one answer we need to keep in play,” he says. He advocates exploring natural gas, wind energy and geothermal sources. “I think the combination is really critical,” he says.

While gas prices have sent car sales plummeting at GM and other domestic auto companies, Burns believes the economic and energy troubles can be overcome. “Yes, we have some challenges, but the economy has a way of cleansing itself,” he says. Noting that just 14 percent of the world’s population owns a car, Burns sees tremendous opportunity for growth.

For Burns, who returns to Berkeley regularly for advisory council meetings at the campus’s Institute of Transportation Studies, it all comes back to innovation. “I think technology can solve the problems,” he says.