General Motors Corp. said on Friday it is accelerating its hydrogen fuel cell program, shifting work from laboratory to engineering groups that aim to develop the technology for mass production.

The No.1 U.S. automaker said it is moving more than 500 fuel cell engineers and experts from advanced development laboratories to engineering functions aimed at preparing the fuel cell for commercial sale.

Fuel cells can convert hydrogen into electricity and be used to power a vehicle that emits only water from the tailpipe.

GM has said it will likely have vehicles powered by fuel cells in showrooms by 2012.

The automaker is also working on a plug-in rechargeable electric vehicle with a supplementary gasoline or diesel motor for longer trips, called the Chevrolet Volt, that it expects to go into production by the end of the decade.

GM said more than 400 engineers will become part of its powertrain group to begin production engineering of fuel cell systems. Another 100 will be reassigned to start integrating fuel cells into future vehicles.

The moving of engineers signals another important milestone as we move fuel cell vehicles closer to future production, Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development, said in a statement.

GM showed off a fuel cell-powered E-Flex version of the Chevrolet Volt at the Shanghai Auto Show in April.

The push to develop environmentally friendly cars is an attempt by GM to distance itself from its close association with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, a reputation executives say has hampered its sales in some markets.