GM's Future Hybrids: Mild to Sassy

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Aug 2010

There is a chart in Larry Nitz's GM Powertrains of the Future presentation that should stand the hairs up on the back of your neck. It's entitled "Future Petroleum Demand" (see below). Taken from the International Energy Agency's 2008 World Energy Outlook, it depicts conventional crude oil production from producing fields dropping steadily starting around now, 2010, after roughly a five year-long plateau. The chilling part is that the gap between producing fields and world demand is supposed to be made up from crude oil "yet to be developed or found."

States the slide, "64 mb/d of gross capacity needs to be installed between 2007 & 2030 -- six times the current capacity of Saudi Arabia."

I have seen similar charts at Toyota presentations. This is the first time, I've seen one in GM's, but the message is very, very clear: petroleum can no longer be depended upon to power the world's transportation system, 96% of which runs on refined gasoline and diesel distillates.

Nitz's presentation at the annual CAR Management Briefings Conference in Traverse City, Michigan last week highlights how General Motors is responding to this new reality. While much of the talk focused on ways in which GM is improving the fuel efficiency of its existing IC engines, as the above chart illustrates, it also has developed a clear roadmap towards the increased electrification of its vehicle powertrains, starting with the reintroduction of the a "mild hybrid" system in late 2011. Ultimately, the road leads completely away from petroleum and towards complete electrification, either from grid-supplied power or from sustainably-produced hydrogen.

While General Motors has developed probably the widest range of hybrid powertrain solutions of any manufacturer, it's not enjoyed the marketing success of Ford or Honda, much less Toyota. Its early micro-hybrid attempts in the Saturn Vue and Aura Greenline vehicles, as well as the Chevrolet Malibu were plagued with their share of technical and quality problems. The launch of the co-developed Two-Mode Hybrid found in the Tahoe and Yukon SUVs, again did little to move consumers who, doing the math, saw little economic benefit in terms of fuel savings compared to the added cost of the hybrid option. In 2009, for example, Chevy sold only 3,300 Tahoe Hybrids total. Clearly, what GM needed was a stand-out hybrid product that offers more than just better fuel economy.

Enter the Chevrolet Volt and its European twin, the Vauxhall Ampera. Part hybrid, part electric-car, this Extended-Range Electric represents a clear break not just with GM's past, but points towards an entirely new, virtually petroleum-free paradigm.

On either side of the Volt/Ampera in the above chart are a yet to be identified Plug-In Hybrid and an all-electric battery-powered car. Presumably, the PHEV will employ a different drivetrain architecture from the Volt/Ampera. It will likely be some form of parallel hybrid operating in a blended mode, meaning the IC engine will be instantly available to assist the electric drive side of the propulsion system in something akin to what Toyota is doing with its PHV Prius, due to go on sale/lease in 2012. It may offer a shorter EV-only mode, perhaps 10-20 miles from a smaller lithium ion battery pack than in the Volt/Ampera. This would allow GM to reduce the cost of the car. I would suspect the IC engine will also be flex-fuel capable, allowing it to use various blends of ethanol.

As for the battery electric car, my guess is it will be a small, urban commuter car, perhaps based on the Spark. GM's unit in India was developing an electric version in collaboration with Reva, until Mahindra & Mahindra bought the Bangalore-based company. Based on its experience with the EV1 in the 1990s, the mystery EV will probably seat four, rather than just two. I wouldn't expect it to be anything radically different along the lines of a three-wheeler like the SEV concept developed by Ralph Panhuyzen. For GM, that would be a 'bridge too far.'

At the end of the roadmap is the ultimate (as we currently understand them) electric vehicle, the hydrogen fuel cell that generates electric power by combining hydrogen and oxygen. Like a conventional liquid fuel call, it can be refueled in a few minutes, and the current crop of advanced prototypes have ranges well over 300 miles.

When we'll see what GM has in mind for its Plug-In and Battery Electric Cars isn't known. We do, however, know that it will be reintroducing a more robust mild-hybrid drive late next year. As GM's Brian Corbett explained it to me, the new system picks up where GM left off development of the 'Next Level' motor/generator system they displayed at the 2008 Geneva Auto Show. Unlike the 36V system in the first generation micro-hybrid, the new, "bigger and badder" system will be 115V and sport a 15kW electric machine, powered by lithium ion batteries, and recharged via a more robust regenerative braking system. It will have 30 per cent more power than the previous system, better acceleration and up to 20% improved fuel economy, while having 40% less overall mass.

But here's the really interesting part, while the system will first debut in an as-yet-unidentified mid-sized GM family sedan in both North America and Asia, there is a fair chance it may be offered as a standard feature, rather than an option. Corbett wasn't making any promises, but said this could be 'read between the lines.' If this turns out to be the case, it would follow on the heels of Ford's decision to sell the hybrid version of its Lincoln MKZ for the same price as its non-hybrid model.

In effect, GM's Electrification Strategy is also a pricing strategy designed to move more of its customers away from total dependence on a single fuel source and gradually towards greater fuel efficiency and more fuel options, including biofuels, compressed natural gas, electricity, and hydrogen. If there is a flaw in the strategy, however, it is the sheer multiplicity of technologies being offered. Toyota, for example, has essentially one common hybrid drive system -- HDS -- though there are variations within the family. GM's hybrid strategy is, literally, all over the map. That has to be expensive in terms of research & development, as well as production. It is moving to consolidate critical pieces of this puzzle. Instead of buying its electric motors from outside vendors, it is bringing that production in house, and presumably those motors, in various configurations, will find their way into all its electric-drive product lineup. I would also imagine that GM will be utilizing its Brownstown lithium battery plant to assemble more than just the packs for the Volt.

To date, GM's electrification efforts have been technical successes, by and large. Now it has to figure out how to get people excited about what the company is offering. Sales of the Volt will tell us a lot about that come this Fall.

IEA Furure Petroleum Demand

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