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The 7th China International Automotive Technology Expo 2020

Time:May,7-9,2020Venue: Wuhan International Expo Center

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  • May 7, Thursday 09:00-16:30
  • May 8, Friday 09:00-16:30
  • May 9, Saturday 09:00-16:30
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How aerospace could be a key to GM's future in fuel cells

The Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 fuel cell electric vehicle, a joint project between GM and the U.S. Army, exemplifies GM's strategy to partner on fuel cells.


DETROIT — How does an automaker cover the cost of developing next-generation hydrogen fuel cell technology without piling hundreds or thousands of dollars onto the cost of today's cars and trucks?


For General Motors, the answer is to pursue nonautomotive partnerships and commercial revenue opportunities ahead of offering the long-promised technology to consumers.

The latest example: an exclusive deal with Liebherr-Aerospace of France to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered auxiliary power unit for aircraft applications. An auxiliary power unit typically powers an aircraft's lighting, air conditioning, backup systems and other auxiliary functions.

The deal marks what's expected to be the automaker's first major foray into aerospace since it sold its Hughes Aircraft operation two decades ago. It calls for the companies to mutually explore opportunities to leverage Liebherr's strong position as a supplier of on-board aircraft systems with GM's fuel cell technology.


"It's all part of our strategy to evolve the technology rapidly to get it reduced in costs so it can be more suitable for a range of applications in the automotive space," Charlie Freese, executive director of GM global fuel cell business, told Automotive News.

The aircraft APUs, which are currently powered by gas-turbine engines, are an "introduction point" to other fuel cell applications in aerospace and related fields, Freese said.

He said GM "has started some discussions" with aircraft manufacturers, but declined to discuss the talks or details of the company's agreement with Liebherr, citing a nondisclosure agreement.


Affordability question

The aerospace work at GM represents a potential, if partial, answer to the quandary facing all automakers as they push forward on costly r&d work that could take years to pay off in the consumer marketplace. Emissions controls, fuel-saving systems, safety components and complex infotainment systems are already testing the limits of vehicle affordability, making it harder for automakers to shift costs of alternative powertrain development to new-car buyers.

Such initiatives are especially important as GM and other automakers face the prospect of having to pass tariff costs down to their customers as relations with key trading partners fray.

"Clearly, we want to make sure that we maintain affordability in vehicles," GM CEO Mary Barra said last week ahead of the company's annual shareholders meeting in Detroit, speaking on the impact of steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

The moves also reflect GM's vigorous defense of its "fortress" balance sheet, a hallmark of the company's strategy after its 2009 emergence from bankruptcy. The financial discipline enforced since then by leaders of the finance team has led GM to quit many unprofitable operations and is expected to continue under the leadership of Dhivya Suryadevara, who takes over as CFO Sept. 1, succeeding Chuck Stevens, who is retiring after 40 years at GM.

'Nice revenue path'

GM sees the institutional market and partnerships as a particularly attractive route to commercializing fuel cells. The Liebherr deal follows GM's launch of a defense unit focused on military applications for fuel cells, and its agreement last year to produce fuel cell systems for automotive use through a 50-50 joint venture with Honda Motor Co. around 2020.

Such tie-ups and revenue opportunities allow GM to cut costs and scale up volume more rapidly than relying on consumers to embrace, and pay for, the new technology.

"I think it's a great idea," said Morningstar analyst David Whiston. "There's no reason they can't do something like that. The military can be a nice revenue path … which is very small today."

GM is taking similar approaches with its aggressive plans for all-electric and autonomous vehicles.

This month, GM built on its alliance with Honda by announcing a new battery partnership that's expected to call for Honda to buy battery modules based on the next generation of GM's battery system. Building up economies of scale will be critical as GM plans to launch at least 20 EVs and fuel cell vehicles globally by 2023.

For the development of self-driving vehicles, including an expected ride-hailing fleet in 2019, GM on May 31 announced a $2.25 billion investment from prominent tech investment firm SoftBank Vision Fund in its autonomous vehicle operations.

'All feasible'

GM has been a major proponent of fuel cell technologies since the 1960s. For more than a decade, Freese said, the company has been developing fuel cell technology for aerospace, which is how the partnership with Liebherr-Aerospace began.

Like battery EVs, fuel cell-powered vehicles operate on electricity and don't emit pollutants. But rather than storing electricity in a battery, they generate power through a chemical process involving hydrogen fuel, which emits only water vapor.

Fuel cells also typically offer refueling times that are comparable to conventional fuels, though they face more serious infrastructure and cost challenges than battery EVs.

"We saw a great opportunity here to exploit the advantages of a fuel cell," Freese said. Fuel cell systems can operate either in-flight or on the ground much more quietly and efficiently than current auxiliary power unit systems, he added.

He said GM doesn't expect any technical roadblocks in implementing fuel cell auxiliary power units for airlines, but the two companies still need to co-develop the system to aerospace specifications and certification. He declined to discuss the time frame for deployment.

"We've developed systems that have been tested in environments like this," Freese said. "We think that's all feasible. There is a lot of work that needs to be done."

GM, according to Freese, sees adjacent opportunities even in the water produced by fuel cells — from humidifying the plane to assisting in flushing toilets and water supply.

Urvaksh Karkaria contributed to this report.

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