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GM fuel-cell champion calls it quits

Flat battery: GM's vice president for research and development Dr Larry Burns with an experimental fuel-cell car.

Larry Burns set to retire as GM reshapes its post-bankruptcy R&D

General Motors logo17 Jul 2009

By RON HAMMERTON

ONE of the motor industry’s leading champions for alternative fuels, General Motors vice president for research and development Dr Larry Burns, will follow his one-time boss, Rick Wagoner, out the door as GM continues to reshape its management team in the wake of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

While former chairman and CEO Mr Wagoner will leave with a $10 million ($A12.5m) golden parachute on August 1, Dr Burns, 58, will retire in somewhat more modest circumstances at the end of September, handing over to his deputy, executive director of research and development Alan Taub, 54.

Industry speculation in Detroit suggests Dr Burns may be disillusioned by cuts to his budget for development of alternative-fuel cars, including hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles such as the Sequel concept car.

The confirmation of his impending retirement was accompanied by another GM announcement saying GM’s global research and development organisation would be rolled into its global product development department immediately.

GM said the move to combine the departments represented “another important step in GM's reinvention into a leaner, more efficient, more agile company”.

“It aligns GM's technology groups into an integrated team,” it said.

If Dr Burns was bitter about the changes, there was no hint of it in a statement attributed to him and passed on by GM public relations to US web site Inside Line: “Much of the technology developed during my tenure at R&D is ready for commercialisation. This is a good time for me to pass the baton to others who are very qualified to drive technology leadership.”

 center imageLeft: GM's Rick Wagoner.

Just last year, Dr Burns visited GM Holden in Australia where he took time out from his official GM duties to visit Melbourne’s Bionic Ear Institute to pay tribute to the pioneers of the cochlear ear implant which helped him to hear again after he suddenly lost his hearing 16 years ago.

Dr Burns, who spent 40 years with GM, advocated a multi-pronged approach to solving the energy crisis, saying no single solution held the key. He nurtured research programs into ethanol, electric cars, hybrids and other alternatives within GM, while maintaining development programs to refine current internal combustion engines for greater fuel efficiency.

In Australia, he suggested that gas – LPG and CNG – was the ideal mid-term solution to a looming oil shortage in this country, because it was not only better for the environment but also plentiful.

In the US, his hopes to launch a hydrogen fuel-cell car by 2010 tripped up on a lack of hydrogen fuel infrastructure. These vehicles appear to be indefinitely on the back burner at GM, which cannot afford such R&D luxuries right now.

GM’s former chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner – forced out by the Obama administration as it rode to the financial rescue of the ailing company in March – will formally retire on August 1 with a pension and benefit package the automaker valued at more than $10 million.

Wagoner, 56, will get $1.64 million ($A2.05m) in annual benefits for each of the next five years, plus an annual pension of $74,030 for the rest of his life, according to company documents filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

The former CEO, who spent 32 years with the company, can also choose to cash out his company-provided life insurance policy at $2.6 million ($A3.2m), according to the filing.

In other GM moves, group vice president and general counsel, Bob Osborne, will return to private legal practice after guiding GM through its Chapter 11 legal problems.

He will be replaced by associate general counsel, Michael Millikin, 60.

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