PONTIAC, Michigan — General Motors Co. may be relentlessly promoting an electric future with its sleek-looking EVs for retail customers, but for decades the automaker also has been developing hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology — and now it's ready to start making money from it.
The movement to commercialization starts with the Hydrotec fuel cell lab and work areas in Pontiac that are three football fields large and neighbor other propulsion operations. It's here where teams collaborate to improve the technology that will be used to power larger modes of transportation from semis to trains, free of emissions.
About 300 employees are working on Hydrotec, GM's hydrogen fuel cell operation that aims to run like a startup while still being connected to the resources of America's largest automaker. The team has been working, mostly behind the scenes, for years to enhance this technology to offer another way toward a zero-emissions future — one that fuels much faster and weighs significantly less than an electric battery.
But in the last year, Hydrotec hasn't been so silent, announcing deals with major trucking and locomotive companies. Hydrotec also is gearing up for higher-volume production at a plant in Brownstown Township, Michigan.
The magnitude of this moment is not lost on Margarita Mann, senior manager for the Hydrotec fuel cell business. She's been working on the technology for most of her career since she started at GM in 2007.
"It's just been exciting for me because we work here day in and day out, but we don't realize how this is pioneering, groundbreaking, really," she said. "You know GM has been making cars for the last 100 years, right, but this is the first time ever that we're making a fuel cell. We don't take it for granted; we just keep on doing this work every day.”
'Not a one-trick pony'
GM has been working on fuel cells for decades, and has done demonstrations, but now those fuel cells, developed with Honda Motor Co., will be sent into real-world applications. The automaker foresees both technologies as avenues to a zero-emissions future as it continues to make internal-combustion vehicles for at least the next decade.
"The adoption for hydrogen, especially on the commercial side, is advancing quicker than anyone expected," Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said. "It's an opportunity for GM to monetize this area ... it gives them an advantage and it's a multi-pronged approach."
GM isn't alone in developing fuel cell technology. Stellantis NV last year in Europe began producing light-commercial vans that use hydrogen fuel cells and electric batteries to power the vehicles. The transatlantic automaker plans to import large versions of the vans to the United States starting in 2025. It has a heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell truck in the works as well.