General Motors Corp. says it is seeking to become the industry's first volume producer of fuel cell-powered vehicles.

“Our goal is to be the first company to sell 1 million fuel cell electric vehicles,” says Byron McCormick, co-director of GM's Global Alternate Propulsion Center, Honeoye Falls, NY. “By the end of this decade we want to have a significant market presence using gasoline as a (source of hydrogen for fuel cells).”

GM's fuel cell technology and business strategy is aimed at taking the automobile out of the environmental debate. This would result in sustainable clean mobility. To achieve this long-term vision, hydrogen is the preferred fuel. It can be generated from many sources, but still requires acceptable storage and distribution technologies. That's why GM selected gasoline as the bridging source to hydrogen.

Mr. McCormick declines to say exactly what year GM would reach its 1 million-unit goal. But he says the focus on gasoline as a fuel should help promote retail sales. “A lot of things work in fleets, but don't work in retail,” he says of other potential fuel choices, such as methanol.

Mr. McCormick says that GM is developing new fuel processors to obtain hydrogen from gasoline. The latest are lighter and more efficient than older versions and able to start much more quickly. The Gen III processor, one of the latest GM developments, will be put in a Chevrolet S-10 pickup for testing early next year. GM says that a fuel cell vehicle uses about half the amount of gasoline as a conventional vehicle of equivalent size.

GM has more than 60 suppliers/technical partners involved in its fuel cell project, and the automaker pays for some of the research performed by those partners. About half those companies are not traditional auto suppliers, he says.

There also are about 260 other companies more peripherally involved in GM's fuel cell program — about half also non-traditional automotive suppliers. “Some are learning what it is to be an automotive supplier,” Mr. McCormick says. “It's to be determined how well they learn.”

But he cautions about expecting too much too soon.

“We want the supply community to understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Mr. McCormick says. “I don't want them to be misled that there are going to be hundreds of thousands of (fuel cell) vehicles out there in '04 and '05.”