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General Motors’ Larry Burns is expanding the car giant’s focus from US-centric R&D to collaborative work all around the world.

It isn’t easy getting on Larry’s calendar. This is not surprising — as Larry Burns, General Motors’ genial R&D chief, is responsible for the technical direction of the biggest car-maker on the planet.

GM has used its position as the world’s largest automotive manufacturer to remain at the forefront of technology. It was the first to employ catalytic converters on its vehicles. It pioneered the use of crash test dummies and trailblazed the adoption of finite element analysis (FEA) design techniques. And yet despite the company’s vast size, all decisions taken on advanced technology and future research rest with one individual. No wonder his diary’s so tight.

Burns has been heading the firm’s R&D since 1998 and has presided over a period when GM has shifted its focus from looking within for ideas toexploring the technological opportunities that the rest of the world presents. Methods that had for years helped the automotive giant keep on top of future technologies have no place in today’s climate, and much of Burns’s effort has been devoted to finding ways of tapping into expertise from around the world.

‘In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the classic business model was to build a laboratory, secure the best PhDs you could find in the world, put them to work in their own labs and hopefully the good things would happen,’ he said. But since then, he claimed, emission and safety regulations combined with the competitive challenges from Europe and Asia to spark a rethink in GM’s advanced technology priorities.

What was required, said Burns, was an innovation network that encompassed research minds globally, not simply in the US. ‘It became very clear to us that a research business model based on bringing the best minds to Michigan just isn’t going to work any more,’ he said.

‘There is too much talent all over the world — be it in India, Israel, Canada or Russia — and we were not tapping into it. You couldn’t move fast enough,’ he said. ‘By the time you recruited the PhDs, equipped the lab, familiarised them with the company, a lot of these opportunities moved so fast and so far, you were out of the game.’

Burns’s vision of a global innovation network is already well on its way to fruition. He currently draws on the work of collaborative laboratories from research establishments in the US (MIT and Stanford, Michigan and Brown Universities), China (Shanghai Jiaotong University) and Europe. But the ultimate aim, he said, is to establish the network worldwide.

‘Most of our growth is focused on shifting our footprint from being primarily US-centric to having a much higher mix of advanced work being done in places around the world.’ It can’t have escaped GM’s notice that a global innovation network will also enable the company to acquire scientific work in China or India at a much better price than in the US.

GM’s approach to advanced technology research is two-pronged. Much of the company’s technology is developed through its ‘innovation programme’, whereby its engineers can approach Burns and gain funding to take an idea from concept through to production. An example of this, he said, is the work that his researchers are doing on improving driver interfaces.

For instance, GM is developing devices that allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road while interacting with applications such as navigation systems, climate control, mobile phones or sound systems.

Beyond the innovation programme the car-maker’s wider technological ambitions are driven by its key strategic technologies programme, in which a panel of company experts meet to determine the 10 areas of technology that are seen as fundamental to the future of the automotive industry and GM.

Comprised of a number of technical leaders from around the world, this science and technology advisory board (STAB) includes, among others, George Heilmeier, who recently won the Kyoto prize, John Seely Brown, who was head of R&D at Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) and world-renowned Harvard business expert Prof Kent Bowen.

‘About five years ago I asked them to do a study on what they believed the key technologies were that would drive the automobile industry over the next 10–20 years,’ said Burns. ‘I asked our researchers to do the same, married up the results, and then made the final call on what the list would be. Actually we have nine, and the 10th is a wildcard.’

Burns is unequivocal about what he expects GM to achieve with such a huge resource base. ‘We expect that we will know more about this technology than anyone else in the world. And the only way you can do that is by carrying out your own research and creating knowledge in this field. I am a very strong proponent of the idea that you will never be ahead in your field if you aren’t trying to create knowledge yourself.’

Burns declined to reveal all the items on his technology wish list, but did admit that three areas that are key to GM’s future research are powertrain control, electronic control and software and hydrogen and fuel cells. And on fuel cells and hydrogen technologies he is particularly forthright. ‘It is an opportunity to relieve our 98 per cent dependence on petroleum as an energysource for our vehicles.’

Clearly a key part of establishing a hydrogen fuel economy is to set up a hydrogen storage network. Accordingly, earlier this year GM signed the $88m (£48m) Freedom car hydrogen fuel initiative with the US Department of Energy. Under this agreement GM is working with Shell Hydrogen to run fuel cell cars in California, Michigan, New York and Washington DC, with Shell providing the refuelling stations.

‘People say that it is going to be hard to bring about the hydrogen infrastructure, but I would argue that the toughest part of the hydrogen structure is knowledge and sharing that knowledge with governments, customers and people around the world,’ said Burns. ‘Then they can appreciate that the vehicles will be as good if not better than those we have today and safer than petrol, gas and diesel. That is why demonstration is so important.’

While senior automotive figures are often reluctant to discuss revolutionary change, Burns’s vision of the automotive future is refreshingly idealistic. For instance, he claimed that the simplicity of a fuel cell engine, which contains a 10th of the moving parts of an internal combustion engine, will present huge design opportunities that could fundamentally change the DNA (the defining physical characteristics) of the car.

He also suggested that fuel cell development will soon converge with research in areas such as advanced materials and telematics to make the car of the future safer, more environmentally friendly and, with only 12 per cent of the world’s population currently having access to a car or truck, more affordable.