DETROIT – Pointing to a confluence of global events that could make the automobile a strain on mankind or an enabler of an Internet-like revolution, General Chairman Larry Burns urges attendees of the Convergence 2006 conference here to “face the realities of our world,” and reinvent the automobile and the industry that creates it.

Burns, vice president-research & development and strategic planning at General Motors Corp, says despite the fact the auto industry has doubled fuel economy in the past 30 years and reduced tailpipe emissions in the U.S. 98% from the 1960s, the exponential growth of vehicle ownership worldwide promises to have a huge and possibly negative impact on society and the environment.

That’s because growing numbers of cars and trucks will guzzle billions more gallons of fossil fuels, spew more emissions and clog roads.

By 2020, there could be as many as 1.1 billion vehicles on the road, and yet that would represent an ownership rate of 15%, just three percentage points higher than today’s global 12% ownership rate, Burns says.

If every person in China were to enjoy the same standard of living as in America, global oil production would have to double from today’s levels to meet demand, he adds.

“Given our growing concerns about energy, emissions, global climate change, safety and congestion, what must our industry do to continue to extend the benefits of automobile ownership to growing numbers of people, and do it in an environmentally and economically sustainable way?” he asks attendees.

The answer, he says, is a vehicle such as GM’s fuel cell-powered Sequel prototype that emits only water vapor and whose functions all are controlled by electronics and electric motors, instead of mechanical devices.

GM is promising to have a fuel-cell propulsion system designed and validated by 2010, and it will launch a 100-vehicle FCV test fleet next year. Most other major auto makers also are developing vehicles powered by fuel cells or internal combustion engines that are capable of using hydrodgen as fuel.

If done properly, this transition could become a huge opportunity for the auto industry, and represent a change no less significant than the switch from horses to horsepower more than 100 years ago, Burns says.

There is an almost universal aspiration around the world for automobile ownership, Burns says, a dynamic he compares with the explosive growth of the Internet.

“Like the Internet, the automobile is an enabler. My automobile gives me freedom; the autonomy to go where I want, when I want, with anyone I wish, carrying whatever I need,” Burns says.

By reinventing the automobile using new automotive “DNA,” made possible by the convergence of technologies, “We will make our vehicles even greater works of art, power, fun and access than today’s cars and trucks,” he says.

And that, in turn, will allow the auto industry to deliver “the tremendous benefits of automobile ownership” to a greater percentage of the world’s people.

dwinter@wardsauto.com