The first time General Motors’ global product development chief Mark Reuss got an up-close look at Honda technology was as a kid when he tore apart his QA-50 minibike in the family garage. The little Honda’s 50-cc engine contained infinitely more parts than are in the hydrogen fuel cell stack GM plans to manufacture (ironically) with joint-venture partner Honda beginning in 2020.
Now Reuss, along with the GM Global Propulsion team and their Honda R&D colleagues, are preparing to bring the fuel-cell program into the manufacturing stage. After three years of co-developing a new-generation fuel cell stack aimed at light vehicles, military, aerospace and other applications, the companies announce the establishment of Fuel Cell System Manufacturing LLC—the industry’s first joint venture for fuel-cell production. The company initially will operate inside GM’s Brownstown Twp., MI, battery-assembly plant.
The pioneering fuel cell “factory” is being launched on an $85M investment equally divided between both OEMs. Also backing the venture will be a $2M performance-based grant approved by the Michigan Strategic Fund Board. The new joint-venture company will have a board of directors, with three executives each from GM and Honda rotating on the board along with a rotating chairperson, president and executive vice president.
While the fuel-cell “stack” displayed during the announcement was in fact a hollow box, its size approximated the actual Gen-4 stack in development. GM has been working on fuel-cell systems since the 1960s and plowed significant resources into related technologies during the last decade. It currently owns more related patents than any other automaker, with Honda holding the second-most number of patents, the companies claim. They share all intellectual property in the joint venture.
The long-term GM-Honda agreement aims to “significantly reduce” the cost of the fuel cell stack while increasing its power density, noted Charlie Freese, Executive Director of GM’s global fuel cell business. The companies’ engineers in the U.S. are co-located in a facility in Pontiac, MI. Freese told Automotive Engineering that the OEMs and key suppliers also are collaborating on solutions for hydrogen fuel storage and delivery.
Honda will use the new, more-compact and lower-cost stack to power its next-generation Clarity fuel cell car, said Toshiaki Mikoshiba, President of Honda North America; the incumbent Clarity FCV (the first-generation model started in limited production in 2009) offers a driving range of 366 mi (589 km). While GM has trademarked the Hydrotec brand name for its fuel cell systems, it has not yet committed to a production FCV, noted Reuss, although its last test fleet of 119 FCVs accumulated more than 3M miles (4.83M km). GM Global Propulsion recently prototyped a fuel-cell-powered Chevrolet Colorado pickup for evaluation by the U.S. Army TARDEC.
Both companies “will continue to work together to further enhance refueling infrastructure. This remains a critical step in the long-term viability and consumer acceptance of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles,” said Mikoshiba. He believes hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles “can act as a core energy system that meets customer needs.” GM Global Propulsion Systems Vice President Dan Nicholson said fuel cells have become a “mainstream, alternative-energy choice.”
The executives acknowledged that the relatively few hydrogen refueling stations currently on line in North America are mostly located in California; the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center lists 33 public refueling stations for the entire country and 59 in total.