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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
blog at http://blog.gmnext.com/
next-generation technologies and environment
discussion -- separate from its popular FastLane
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
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.
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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