DETROIT – It’s more than a year late, but the delay in cutting the ribbon on a hydrogen fuel pump at a Shell station in Washington will not affect General Motor Corp.’s timeline to sell fuel-cell vehicles by 2010.

“We have not seen anything that indicates we cannot hit the target we’ve set for ourselves,” Larry Burns, GM vice president-research and development and planning, says during a conference call to mark the Nov. 10 opening. “We’re very encouraged by our progress.”

GM’s R and D chief Larry Burns calls the station’s opening “historic.”

GM’s fuel-cell vehicle goal has been called optimistic, as the auto maker struggles to develop a vehicle storage system, overcome a lack of consumer awareness and establish non-existent fueling-station infrastructure.

But obtaining permits from the local government – not technological shortcomings – delayed the hydrogen fuel pump’s opening, explains Phil Baxley, Shell Hydrogen US vice president-new business development.

GM and Shell announced in March 2003 intentions to launch a fleet of six fuel-cell vehicles for use by policy makers and open a hydrogen-fuel pump in October 2003. (See related story: Fill It Up: Shell, GM to Launch Hydrogen Pump)

GM launched the fuel-cell minivans last year, but the vehicles had to be re-filled remotely due to the pump’s delayed opening.

There reportedly are 87 hydrogen pumps operating worldwide and a handful currently in the U.S. The Washington hydrogen pump is the first installed by a commercial gasoline company at a station.

The hydrogen-fuel pump, located at a conventional gas station, will offer compressed and liquid hydrogen. It will be used to service the six GM fuel-cell powered minivans and other hydrogen-powered vehicles.

“You won’t be able to just stop by and fill up,” says Baxley. “We’ll need to have a use agreement to use the hydrogen station.”

Shell Hydrogen CEO Jeremy Bentham says the Washington fueling station offers consumers a peek into the future as the automotive industry transitions over several years from non-renewable fossil fuels to the clean-burning and renewable hydrogen.

“It’s a glimpse of what tomorrow is going to look like: a gas driver pulling up next to a hydrogen driver,” he says.

When tomorrow actually arrives is debatable. There are many barriers blocking hydrogen’s claim as the fuel of the future. There is bickering over how to produce hydrogen, and estimates for building an adequate hydrogen infrastructure and distribution system in the U.S. range from $12 billion to $400 billion, according to industry sources. (See related story: Experts Say Hydrogen Fuel is Costly Investment)

The public largely is uneducated about hydrogen, and auto makers continue to struggle with onboard storage, vehicle range and cold start-up. Fuel-cell vehicles and fueling stations with hydrogen pumps currently are too expensive; the Washington station cost Shell $2 million.

Even assuming hydrogen will be the fuel of the future might be a mistake.

But hydrogen is gaining support.

The Bush Admin. has called on the U.S. Dept. of Energy to invest $1.7 billion in the research and development of hydrogen technologies, including automobiles, fuel cells, and infrastructure. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to establish 200 hydrogen fuel stations this decade in the Golden State.

Burns is optimistic. “I believe the opening of this station is a historic moment,” he says. “We will look back on this day and realize that it was a watershed moment – the moment when we started down a new path to a future where we have readily available hydrogen, made from renewable feedstocks, to power our vehicles and energize our economy.”

Bentham points out there already are numerous hydrogen fuel reforming sites around North America that are used to make cleaner gasoline. Fuel for the Washington pump is being delivered from Sarnia, Ont., Canada, he adds.