Jan 9, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
GM's statements and presentations in the past week have made for some provocative and at times confusing reading. Here's a round-up.
WILL VOLT BE READY IN 2010?
For months GM has been saying its goal was to mass-produce the Chevy Volt in late 2010. It's common sense to recognize that a date three years away is merely a stake in the ground.
Last week, CEO Rick Wagoner set off what we see as something of a tempest in a teapot when he told journalists and bloggers, as Detroit News http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080104/AUTO01/
801040361 reported, But he cautioned that the timeline isn't a sure thing as the automaker works to develop the technology required to produce a battery-powered car for the masses. "We continue to put massive resources into production as soon as possible," Wagoner said, responding in writing during an online chat session to kick off the automaker's 100th anniversary. "2010 would be great, but (we) can't guarantee that at this time. We'll keep you posted regularly on our progress."
Then others at GM scrambled to respond: Rob Peterson, Manager of Chevy Volt/E-Flex Communications, told a blogger, http://www.groovygreen.com/groove/?p=2405 Mr. Wagoner's response while phrased differently than our previous responses, is consistent with what we have said all along, "we continue to work aggressively toward our 2010 internal target, but that date is dependent on the availability of battery technology that meets our safety, performance and durability requirements."
AutoObserver's Michelle Krebs said "Chevy Volt Developer: Don't Overanalyze CEO's Tempering Remark" http://www.autoobserver.com/2008/01/chevy-volt-deve.html and included a statement that rumors about battery problems are "laughably unfounded:" Here at the Consumer Electronics Show for a firsthand look at how the personal electronics and automotive worlds are converging, Jon Lauckner, vice president, global program management and the ranking engineer overseeing development of a production version of the Volt's E-Flex powertrain architecture, says not to read too much into last week's comment by Wagoner, which some translated as a reality check on the aggressive development timeline for the Volt -- and perhaps on Lutz's always-optimistic accounts of the Volt's progress. Lauckner says doubters and critics got "overfocused" on Wagoner's remark, and that it's Wagoner's job to deal out reality checks. "He's just being cautious," insists Lauckner of Wagoner's "no guarantee" comment regarding the potential for the Volt reaching showrooms in 2010.
Lauckner also says Internet grist that GM has run into problems with the prototype lithium-ion batteries -- now being testing under limited conditions -- are laughably unfounded. "I can't tell you how far off the mark that rumor is," says Lauckner, adding that he hopes GM might begin testing Volt prototypes outside the confines of a proving-grounds environment sometime in 2009. Moreover, Lauckner assures Auto Observer the Volt will be engaging to drive -- a personality trait in short supply with most current hybrid vehicles.
A Reuters report http://www.guardian.co.uk/feedarticle?id=7209896 confirmed these statements, For suppliers, GM's push to develop lithium-ion batteries is expected to open the door to a new market valued in billions of dollars over the next few years. A subsidiary of Korea's LG Chem Ltd., one of two company's vying for the Volt battery contract, delivered the first battery packs to GM researchers late last year. On a separate competitive track, a division of German auto parts supplier Continental AG is working to integrate batteries for GM's Volt that would be supplied by privately held Massachusetts-based A123 Systems. The Continental-A123 group will supply the first battery packs to GM for testing later this month, Denise Gray, GM's director of hybrid engineering told Reuters. GM's initial tests of the battery packs supplied by LG Chem subsidiary Compact Power had been positive in tests designed to simulate real driving conditions, Gray said. "They're performing within the forecast parameter, and that's pretty good," she said.
And GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz clarified in a Fastlane Blog posting http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/archives/2008/01/happy_birthday.html This program remains a top commitment to the company, and we are holding tight to our 2010 deadline. And while 2007 was a big year for the Volt, we expect 2008 to be even bigger. As each day passes, our confidence and understanding of the battery technology necessary for the Volt to go into production grows. The results from our first two months of testing -- some of which has been fairly extreme -- have been very encouraging. Soon these batteries will move from the lab to engineering mule vehicles for dynamic testing. There's no way we can predict how these batteries will perform over 10 years based on only two months of testing, but I can assure you, there will be a point in time when we have the full confidence that our solution will reach this goal. When this happens, you'll be the first to know.
OUR VIEW: We see these hedges and clarifications as indications that though GM has denied that battery development and confidence in their extended life will determine the late 2010 deadline, in fact, that is the key critical path. And we continue to believe that if GM wanted to get cars on the road sooner, it could do so with a smaller lithium-ion pack and a battery warranty or with nickel-metal hydride batteries with a lower electric-only range. (For all GM's insistence on 40 miles for the Volt, the Saturn Vue PHEV in 2009 will have 10, and the Cadillac Provoq concept car described below will have 20.) All that said, none of these back-and-forth exchanges will impede GM from showcasing the Volt at events and in its ads for as long as it takes before it's produced.
ELECTRICITY AND ELECTRONICS
GM CEO Rick Wagoner appeared as a keynote speaker at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Catering to his audience, he and other GM executives proceeded to mix up into one brew "electricity" and "electronics" -- two related but still distinct technologies. Substituting cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity for liquid fuels is what plug-in cars are about. Of course, PHEVs and EVs use advanced electronic controls. But that's not the same thing as using electronics to make any cars smarter, more convenient and safer (which of course bring many benefits, and can probably be best implemented in electrically-powered vehicles). That said, we're not unhappy about the technology mixture, since GM's evangelizing will reinforce the arguments for plug-in cars. (GM's motivations also have to do with its probable technical advantage over Toyota in some electronics technologies, notably OnStar, which is a gateway to many services.) Here are examples of how it played out:
MSNBC reported http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22560306 Wagoner promoted the safety and convenience features that are previewed by recent "driverless vehicles," saying, "Our intent is to bring you the future of transportation." "We'll do this by working more closely than ever with the consumer electronics industry, using electronics to reinvent the automobile." [Wagoner drove onstage in a Volt, and then introduced the Provoq, a PHEV Cadillac E-Flex concept car with a motor for front wheels and rear hub wheel motors, a smaller battery providing a 20-mile electric range and a 280-mile hydrogen fuel cell range extender], saying, "We really see electronics playing a huge role as we endeavor to reduce our reliance on foreign oil," he said, citing GM's experience with the OnStar navigation system, which it introduced 10 years ago. OnStar "taught us that the electronics industry has some lessons for the automotive industry," he said.
Previewing Wagoner's appearance, the Wall Street Journal in "Could GM's Salvation Be Stuff of Science Fiction?" http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119948828539568677.html quoted others at GM making similar statements and put them in the context of GM's competitive position with Toyota: "We see vehicles going from being largely mechanical to becoming more and more electronic," Larry Burns, chief technologist at GM and a confidant of Mr. Wagoner's, said in an interview last week. "We can think of no auto maker that is better positioned to fully leverage this trend than us." Pushing the technological envelope is a key element of Mr. Wagoner's strategy for turning GM around and positioning the company to compete with Toyota Motor Corp. in the long term. He is convinced being the first with game-changing innovations is the solution to one of GM's fundamental problems -- its battered image. Like its crosstown rivals Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, General Motors has struggled to make money and regain market share in North America in part because many consumers who were burned by GM's quality problems -- largely now a thing of the past -- still view the company as plodding and slow, and flatly refuse to drive GM vehicles. Mr. Wagoner declined to be interviewed for this article but Mark LaNeve, GM's U.S. sales and marketing chief, said last week that GM believes it must challenge Toyota on technology leadership in order to reverse the negative perception of GM and to win back customers who have defected to foreign makes. "Toyota right now clearly has a leadership position on reputation, financial results, many other measures," Mr. LaNeve said. "That's the position we need to attain."
GM'S NEW FUTURETECH BLOG
GM has launched http://www.gmnext.com including a blog at http://blog.gmnext.com/ to highlight next-generation technologies and environment discussion -- separate from its popular FastLane blog http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/ founded by Lutz. Greenbiz.com http://www.greenbiz.com/news/news_third.cfm?NewsID=36476 quotes Rick Wagoner saying, "We're starting our second century at a time of fundamental change in the auto industry. We'll use GMnext to introduce some of our ideas for addressing critical issues concerning energy, the environment and globalization. In the process, we also hope to spark a broader, global discussion on these important topics."
LARRY BURNS INTERVIEW
Here's Earth2Tech's CES interview http://earth2tech.com/2008/01/08/can-tech-help-cars-save-the-world-a-conversation-with-dr-lawrence-d-burns
-of-gm/ with a key executive at GM, Larry Burns, who until recently was primarily involved with fuel cells but now is largely focusing on PHEVs. You'll find many controversial comments in this interview, about GM's EV-1, the diverging fates of oil and car companies and an effort to blame consumers for Detroit's decades-long promotion of heavy muscle cars.
On the eve of General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner's keynote address at CES, we got a chance to talk about the car company's plans for green vehicle technology with Lawrence D. Burns, VP of R&D for GM's research and development center.
Burns has worked with GM since 1969 and been in his current role for a decade. On the CES show floor Burns was flanked on one side by some of the 100 road-certified fuel-cell cars in GM's Project Driveway, and on the other by the driverless Boss car that recently won the DARPA challenge (and which GM is showing off at CES.)
GM is eager to show that U.S. automakers aren't behind their overseas counterparts when it comes to technology, though Burns admitted mistakes when it comes to GM's early electric car, the EV-1. "We had an EV-1 --still the most energy-efficient car ever…We should have gone on from the EV-1 and we would have had a 10-year lead on the market," he said.
There was that misstep, and the following competition -- GM is actively avoiding the term "hybrid," and Burns admitted that "Toyota owns the hybrid label." Instead, GM calls its cars "electric vehicles," and considers the onboard (gas-powered) powerplant a "range extender." The company is coming back with a holistic strategy for greener cars that relies heavily on that electric technology.
But not just in the fuel system. Burns was quick to point out that much of the potential for fuel efficiency comes from other areas. One of these is safer driving. "The most significant fuel economy is cars that don't crash," said Burns. He guessed that a 4,000-pound car could weigh as little as 1,500 pounds if it wasn't for safety concerns, and still have the same carrying capacity. So a car that can, through technology, avoid accidents might weigh significantly less in the future.
Technology can also help by changing the way we drive. For example, one of the main causes of highway congestion is the effect that stop-and-go driving has on traffic jams, which was analyzed in a December of 2007 study by University of Exeter mathematicians. Dr Gábor Orosz of the University of Exeter told science site physorg.com that "a slight braking from a driver who has identified a problem early will allow the traffic flow to remain smooth. Heavier braking, usually caused by a driver reacting late to a problem, can affect traffic flow for many miles."
Burns estimated that if only 20 percent of the cars on a highway had adaptive cruise control, that would smooth out this sort of congestion. And less congestion means less idling and less variance in driving speed. Indeed, according to GM, an internal study of various drivers using the same vehicle, GM employees varied their fuel efficiency from 13 MPG to 22 MPG depending on routes, speeds, and other factors. For example, one of GM's V8 engines can use only half its eight cylinders when driving at 65 MPH; but all eight kick in at 75 MPH.
Decoupling the driving system from the fuel system is another big win. In a true hybrid car, the engine runs at varied speeds because it is directly moving the car. But GM is calling its cars "electric vehicles," not hybrids, considering the onboard (gas-powered) powerplant a "range extender."
When the gas engine is separate from the electrical drivetrain, two good things happen. First, the efficiency of the engine is far greater (because it can be optimized to run at a constant speed) while the car's power is consistent throughout its speed range (because there's no need for transmission.) And second, it's easier to switch fuel sources.
"We need to move to other fuel sources," he said. "The power grid has surplus power that equals 40% of the miles driven in the US." In addition to plug-in vehicles, there are also hydrogen fuel cells and cellulosic ethanol, for which Burns has high hopes.
When it comes to automakers' relationships to oil companies, Burns is fairly clear. "Do you think it makes us happy to scratch out a minimal profit while the oil companies get to make large profits?" he laughed. "If there's a conspiracy going on, we're getting the bad end of it."
When Wagoner gives his speech at CES today, he'll highlight the technology that can make Detroit green. We'll need all the efficiency we can get. The US Department of Energy estimates that the economy will grow at a rate of 3-4 percent a year, with energy demand growing at 2 percent a year. In 25 years' time, that compounds to 70% more energy needed.
Burns believes we can get there, but that no one technology will solve the problem. Instead, it will be a blend of the technologies GM is showing at CES: Better power systems, the use of alternate fuels, safer cars that weigh less, and improving the way people drive. "Maybe 40% of that can come from ethanol," he estimates.
Burns said that the biggest misconception people have about car companies is "that [the companies] don't want to make cars any more efficient, even though we've increased efficiency 110% since the 1970's. But consumers chose to put that efficiency into more power and more acceleration. "
Many of the technologies GM is showing can improve the efficiency of cars dramatically. But it's going to take a change in consumer mindsets for that efficiency to take the form of reduced emissions and fuel consumption, rather than bigger, faster motors. "Now that oil is $100 a barrel," concluded Burns, "consumers will have to make new choices about that efficiency." Sure, along with the car companies.