Remember the electric car? General Motors invested more than $1 billion in the Earth-friendly EV1 but managed to lease only 800 before shutting down the entire program – because, in part, people had too few places to plug in the cars.

Now the cash-strapped carmaker has placed another billion-dollar bet, this time on hydrogen fuel cells, with plans to double its financial commitment over the next five years. GM expects to roll out a practical hydrogen-powered ride by 2010, but outside experts say the technology for an H2-fueled economy is decades off. Meanwhile, Toyota has taken the lead in eco-autos with its hugely successful Prius, and industry rumor has it that GM could license Toyota’s hybrid tech to make up lost ground. We asked Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of R&D and strategic planning, if the company is spinning its wheels on hydrogen.

Wired: Gas-electric hybrids are the automotive industry’s biggest success story in years. So why is GM betting the farm on hydrogen?
Burns: I wouldn’t call it betting the farm. The fuel cell and hydrogen program is the largest in my budget, but you have to look at it as our long-term play. Are we making a big bet? Yes. Is it an important bet? Yes. Is it our only bet? No. Are we spending like drunken sailors to the point that we wouldn’t be able to do anything else if this doesn’t pan out? No, not at all.

But you still have to catch up to Toyota.
What long-term problem have we fixed with the miracle of a hybrid? If you woke up tomorrow and all 220 million cars and trucks in the United States had been hybridized to the degree that the Prius has – all getting 25 percent better fuel economy – in six years we would be consuming the same amount of petroleum that we are right now. Fuel cells create a better automobile that’s 50 percent more energy-efficient overall and sustainable from energy and safety perspectives. We’re going to compete for customers by having good hybrids, but these vehicles account for less than 1 percent of US auto sales. I admire what Toyota has done, but at the end of the day, what problems are we trying to fix here?

So can I assume GM’s hybrid cars, like Ford’s, will be part of a deal with Toyota?
No, you can’t assume that at all. The tech­nology we’re coming out with in 2007 is our own. We do not have a collaboration with Toyota on hybrids.

Many scientists say it will take decades to develop fuel cells and the infrastructure to support them. What do you know that they don’t?

The first question I’d like to ask them is, when was the last time you were in a state-of-the-art fuel cell-development laboratory? I work with a tremendous team of scientists and engineers who are creating that capability, and my confidence in our 2010 timetable grows every week.

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