Electric Cars Now Part of GM's Automotive DNA
By EV World
When Dr. Larry Burns assumed position of Vice President for Research and Development at General Motors in mid-1998, Rick Wagoner, GM's Chairman and CEO, asked him to reinvent the automobile; to change its "DNA", which has remained essentially unchanged for 120 years.
Not surprisingly, the electrification of the personal passenger car is a significant part of that evolution, he told a handful of journalists during a breakfast meeting at G.M.'s Warren, Michigan research facility the morning of 12 March 2007.
EV World was invited to attend both the breakfast and the follow-up battery briefing, but a broken thrust reverser and a subsequent cascade of electrical problems first delayed and ultimately resulted in Northwest Airlines cancelling the flight to Detroit, too late for our publisher to rebook and attend the event. Gratefully, GM offered to conference him in on both the breakfast and the larger teleconference that included briefs from both General Motors executives, Johnson Controls, A123 and Cobasys, the contractors GM has hired to develop prototype batteries for their two-mode, plug-in hybrid program. We were able to record both events; the battery brief will be podcast at a later date.
EV World subscribers will be able to listen to virtually all of Dr. Burns' 85-minutes (19.4MB) of remarks via MP3 using either of the two players above or by downloading the file to your computer hard drive and transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device.
Here are some of the highlights of Dr. Burns comments:
He stressed that for GM -- and all other carmakers -- to remain in business in the future, General Motors believes it has to find ways to "displace petroleum", emphasizing that he chose his words carefully. It will be imperative to diversify our energy sources, he argued, for both national security and environmental reasons. But this diversification poses a challenge because no car company wants to have to build different power trains for this diversification of fuels. The current system is already complex enough with multiple engine platforms and transmissions. The key is to future profitability is to "de-proliferate" drive system types; this is where electric drive comes into play, because it can utilize multiple fuel sources, which have been transformed into a widely-distributed, ubiquitous energy source: electricity.
Burns explained that while GM is working on modern diesel engines, the first of which will appear in its trucks, diesels do not, ultimately, offer a promising road forward from GM's perspective. The investment needed to scale-up the production of modern diesels in the numbers needed is huge and, at best, it only buys carmakers an extra ten years in dealing with the environmental and energy issues confronting the industry.
Electric-drive technology offers a far more promising pathway forward because it solves these very problems: whether the primary energy source is electric power, biofuels or conventional petroleum products. He estimates is costs G.M. less than $100 to give a car the capability of burning flexible fuels from 100% alcohol (ethanol) to 100% petroleum, as opposed to building diesel engines that cost twice what a gasoline engine costs.
On the topic of ethanol, he said that cellulosic ethanol looks like it will reach the tipping point of economical production sometime between 2010 and 2015, about the same time that fuel cells and advanced batteries will begin emerging as economically, as well as technologically, viable alternatives to petroleum-only fueled engines.
He briefly discussed GM's progress from the EV1 to the Volt, noting that the company has begun production engineering on the technology previewed in the Volt. He stated that the company will "go to market" as soon as the battery or a fuel cell is ready to go, sometime in the 2010-2012 time frame. Burns noted that GM is still actively pursuing its fuel cell research and that it will begin delivering the first of 100 fuel cell-powered Equinoxes starting late this year and continuing through 2009. He pointed out that whereas it takes 4-5 hours (overnight) to recharge a battery at home, it only takes 4-5 minutes to refuel with hydrogen.
The journalists who were present at the breakfast asked some tough questions; wondering why, for example, GM could build the EV1 using both lead-acid batteries and later NiMH that delivered 60-120 miles range, but the best they could offer using advanced lithium ion batteries was 40 miles. Burns replied that the EV1 was a fundamentally different vehicle from the Volt in terms of passengers and weight. Curiously, he didn't know the overall, well-to-wheel efficiency difference between a fuel cell vehicle using electrolyzed hydrogen and a battery electric vehicle. His numbers for the efficiency of both the fuel cell and the electrolyzer were optimistic at 50% and 70% respectively. He didn't know the energy-in-energy-out efficiency of a battery which is typically in the high 80% range, twice that of the fuel cell, electrolyzer pathway of 35%.
Though Burns remains firmly committed to hydrogen, he doesn't see being supportive of one technology as obligating you to being against another.
"We are going to need them all," is pretty much the way he phrased it. Twenty-five percent of the 50 million tons of hydrogen produced every year in the world goes to refining gasoline and more is needed every year because the the decreasing quality of the crude oil now being refined (note, the phrase 'peak oil' was never mentioned, but its shadow clearly seemed to loom over the discussion).
Fifty million tons of hydrogen is enough to power one-quarter of the world's vehicle fleet.
To the question of the impact of this rapidly changing environment where more business is going to ultimately shift to electric vehicle component makers and away from engine and transmission suppliers, Burns replied that GM's suppliers are going to have to evolve their businesses.
"I am a firm believer in 'Do unto yourself before others do it unto you," he said.
One the question to that status of lithium battery development, he responded that a great deal of progress has been made at the individual cell level, but much more needs to be done at both the pack and system integration level, that's why GM has contracted with Johnson Controls-Saft and Cobasys-A123.
The question about the role of NiMH came up and why GM couldn't speed up the introduction of a shorter-range, plug-in hybrid based on this well-understood chemistry, instead of waiting for lithium ion manufacturing to mature. He basically responded that the company simply doesn't see any significant cost reductions happening in the foreseeable future with nickel-based batteries; while it does see it happening for lithium.
The session wrapped up with some brief discussion on how vehicles like the Volt -- which Burns says will ultimately have one-tenth the number of moving parts in its drive system compared to a standard IC engine and transmission -- will affect the automotive repair and after-market when they are likely to be fewer if any oil changes or tune-ups.
He concluded by saying we need to be for all of these technologies: batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and ethanol.
To download the complete 19.4MB MP3 audio of Dr. Burns' comments use the following URL: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/gm_batbrief_lburns.mp3
EV World expresses its thanks to Rob Petersen, Scott Fosgard and Dr. Burns for helping make this recording possible.