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GM and the Electrification of the Vehicle

Although GM is the villain in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, though redeemed in the 2011 doc The Revenge of the Electric Car, the corporation is working so hard at electrification that by 2016 it could be the hero of automotive electrification everywhere.
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Although there are—and will continue to be—those who think that the name of the game in terms of powertrains for the foreseeable future is based on gas, there are those who realize that there are other necessary approaches, approaches that, on the one hand, are focused on meeting regulatory requirements for fuel efficiency, and on the other are fulfilling demands of the customer base.

So listen to Mary Barra, addressing a group via satellite at what is billed as the “GM Electrification Experience” (yes, you can see where this is going).

And she addresses both factors driving electrification in the context of the Chevrolet Spark EV, which will be available in the summer of 2013, initially at dealerships in California: “Sure, we’ll meet requirements set by certain regulatory agencies, but we’re not building the Spark EV to check a regulatory box.” Rather, she continues, “We think the Spark EV will attract a new group of customers to Chevrolet who want a car that is green and a whole lot more.” Meaning that there is a case to be made that there is a customer base that is looking for electrified vehicles.

But there are electrified vehicles like the Spark EV, which runs entirely on batteries. There is a square-shaped, 560-lb., 133-liter battery pack located below the rear seats and over the rear axle of this A-class vehicle, essentially located where the gas tank is in the internal-combustion-engine version of the car. Inside the pack there are 336 prismatic cells based on the Nanophosphate lithium iron phosphate chemistry from A123 Systems. The battery pack is >20 kWh.

And there are hybrid vehicles, too, like the Toyota Prius. Barra admits, “Traditional hybrid technology is important, of course.”

There are other versions of electrification, as well, such as the eAssist system that GM offers in the Buick Regal and LaCrosse, Chevy Malibu Eco and will offer in the 2014 Chevy Impala. Essentially, eAssist adds a 115-v lithium ion battery and a 15-kW induction motor. Regenerative braking is used to power that battery. And the battery/motor combination provides up to 11 kW, or 15 hp, of electrical power assistance to the internal combustion engine during acceleration. eAssist, as well as related features and functions (e.g., automatic engine shut-off when the vehicle is stopped), provides as much as a 25% improvement in fuel efficiency.

According to Barra, all in, the company plans to be producing “up to 500,000 vehicles annually with some form of electrification globally by 2017.”

But if you want to know what direction they’re taking in this transition to electrification: “We think plug-in technology will play an increasingly important role in the years to come, and that’s where a significant part of our focus will be.”

They’re focusing on the plug.

At Least They’re Not Calling It “Laser-Like Focus”
An interesting aspect of General Motors’ approach to products and technology in past years is that it has been fairly general: wide ranging, not particularly confined. (Maybe an unintended reference to Alfred Sloan’s “a car for every purse and purpose,” but applied across the board, not simply to vehicles. Mary Barra acknowledges that “our recent strategy for developing cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles was essentially to cover the waterfront—to pursue as many promising technologies as possible.” Here, there and everywhere.

That’s changed. “That’s not how GM is doing business today,” Barra says. “While we are generating record profits, we need to refine and focus our work. We need to be disciplined and responsible to our shareholders… and we need to make educated bets on which technologies hold the most potential for creating value for our customers and our company.”

And one way that they are making these educated bets is through a unit it established in June 2010, GM Ventures, with an initial funding of $100-million; its purpose is to find companies that GM can make equity investments in. GM Ventures is headed by Jon Lauckner, who also holds the title of Chief Technology Officer of GM, so he’s a customer as well as an investor in technology. Lauckner notes of the benefit of its purchasing position for a company that it invests in: “A common problem for all startups is identifying their first customer.” That is something that could conceivably be solved rather quickly.

Electrification plays a role in what GM Ventures is looking to add to its portfolio. Lauckner says there are five categories of interest, five areas where they anticipate “significant breakthroughs” and that can provide “a competitive advantage for longer-term success”:
1. Automotive clean tech. This includes things like batteries and motors, an obvious area of electrification. (However, Lauckner says that they’re calling it “Automotive clean tech” without any bias toward a technology, because he says that there are also companies working toward improving the conventional internal combustion engine and that’s of interest to them, as well.)
2. Connected vehicles. Everything from infotainment to cloud computing.
3. Advanced materials. Looking for materials that are lightweight, eco-friendly, and that provide beneficial properties (e.g., phase-change materials).
4. Sensors, processors, memory. Lauckner points out that a vehicle today is running some 100-million lines of code on 75 processors or more.
5. Manufacturing technologies. “This will always be a core business for us,” he says. They’re seeking improvements in the areas of efficiency and productivity.

Lauckner says, “We will end up working more with non-automotive companies.” The technologies that they are seeking are not necessarily those that the familiar suppliers to the auto industry are involved in developing. And to the extent that there are improvements that conventional suppliers—“mature companies,” as he puts it—make that are beneficial in addressing the vehicle manufacturer’s needs, they will continue the partnership arrangements that have long existed between the OEM and suppliers.

Designing a New Class of Cars
So what is happening is that a whole new class of vehicles is being developed, a class of vehicles that can radically change the layout of the vehicle. So John Cafaro, head of Exterior Design for Chevrolet, and Tom Matano, current head of Industrial Design and Transportation, University of San Francisco School of Design, and former head of Design at Mazda North America (among other design posts), suggest that designing electric vehicles is certainly a challenge, given that the design, on the one hand, must be sufficiently intriguing and appealing, while, on the other, must be sufficiently familiar because the consumer is being asked to try something entirely new. And this isn’t going to be something that is going to occur all at once.

Speaking of design execution of something different, Matano cites the Toyota Prius, a form that (starting with the second generation vehicle) has what is now a familiar body form. “If you do it right,” Matano says, “eventually the market accepts it.” So in the case of the Prius, there is now a proliferation of models, yet with an exterior design that is unmistakably Prius.

GM is working to accomplish much the same thing, to create iconic design cues for its electric vehicles, and for positioning its brands as having technological advancement and sophistication. Cafaro says, “We used to say there’s a little Corvette in every Chevrolet; we’ve switched that around and now we say there’s a little Volt in every Chevrolet.”

But it isn’t simply a matter of a design cue here or there. It isn’t simply a matter of taking advantages of what an EV powertrain provides (e.g., a motor and the associated power electronics can take less space in the front of the car, which opens interior package availability). It is considering the whole package, all of the elements. Matano gives an example of an EV where there is a little thing that was overlooked, a little thing that might have made a big difference in how the vehicle is perceived. The example is the charger door on the Nissan LEAF, a purpose-designed EV.

Matano says that the present execution is an opportunity lost. Rather than making it dramatic, it is simply a plastic door. Open the door and see the charging receptacle. “It seems like a cheap afterthought. It could have been dramatic.”

And drama is important in design of all new products, particularly products like Priuses, Volts and LEAFs. Matano: “I say that when you do something innovative, you have to do it 200%. More than perfect. Because 100% will find something wrong with it.”

Even More Electric
The Chevrolet Volt is called in GM parlance an “E-REV” as in “extended-range electric vehicle.” That’s because in addition to its 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack powering a 111-kW electric motor, there is a 1.4-liter, DOHC Ecotec I4 engine that kicks in to charge the battery once it is run down. (Some people might argue that the Volt is a plug-in hybrid, but then that turns into an endless exercise in definition: “A hybrid uses an electric motor and an internal combustion engine, therefore, the Volt is a hybrid”. . . “But hybrids generally have the internal combustion engine working to power the wheels, and the Volt’s wheels are powered by the motor, with the engine simply acting as a generator, so . . .”).

In 2013 the GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant will commence production of the Cadillac ELR, a luxury coupe predicated on the Volt system. Another electrified vehicle.

In summer 2013, customers in California will find at Chevy dealers something that is unambiguously an electric vehicle, the 2014 Spark EV. While the Volt was a purpose designed and built vehicle, the Spark EV is based on the version of the car with an 84-hp, 1.2-liter I4 engine. But in the case of the Spark EV, the engine, transmission, exhaust system, gas tank. . .have been removed and replaced with a propulsion system that deploys a motor and drive system manufactured at the GM transmission plant in White Marsh, Maryland, and a battery system developed by A123 Systems. The Spark EV—which is considered a “BEV,” as in “battery electric vehicle”—uses an oil-cooled, permanent magnet electric motor. The oil-cooled motor is not only being produced by GM, it was designed by the company, as well.

This design and engineering of a 100-kW motor seems somewhat unusual: Fundamentally, GM is a company that produces powertrains that have pistons and cranks, not rotors and stators. Aren’t there other companies—say those that make industrial drives—better suited to producing motors than GM? Matt Laba, engineering group manager, GM Electric Motor Development and Validation, explains that the duty cycle of an automotive electric motor is unlike that for any other application, industrial or commercial. Consider that drivers are regularly changing the speed they are going, so it isn’t a smooth, regular demand on the motor. The vehicle operates in a wide range of environmental conditions. And the motor for the Spark EV has to be compact and powerful. This has led to things like using square wires to assemble the stator. (There are 120 wires used to assemble each stator, arranged in four layers.)

While the Spark EV system is not like the one used in the Volt, Laba and his colleagues used learnings from the Volt in developing the design of the stator. They also are using much of the motor control and cooling system found in the Volt.

International Demands
“It’s challenging to the entire industry,” says Larry Nitz, executive director, GM Global Electrification. He’s talking about the regulatory requirements that exist not only in the U.S. where the 2025 CAFE regulations call for 54.5 mpg, but in Europe and China, where there are as-demanding changes in CO2 emissions from vehicle fleets that call for fundamental changes in the makeup of the fleet.

Lutz Kleinstueck, program engineering manager, Opel Ampera (the German version of the Volt), says that in Europe there is a 2020 regulation calling for CO2 emissions of just 95 g/km, which translated to miles per gallon is about 68 mpg. David W. Lake, Director of Public Policy at GM China’s Beijing Operations, says that in China there are regulations that require approximately 56 mpg by 2020 (and he notes that the government wants 5-million electric vehicles on the road by that date).

Which is why it is challenging to the entire industry.

Other Challenges
But there are other challenges that go beyond developing 20-kWh lithium-ion battery packs that can handle multiple DC fast charges (per SAE J1772) on a daily basis (up to 80% of charge capacity can be obtained within 20 minutes). Another part of it is actually getting the charging stations out into the public environment in a meaningful number and making sure that public utilities are capable of handling an influx of vehicles that use electric plugs rather than gasoline pumps. This is a challenge that Britta Gross, director of Advanced Vehicle Commercialization Policy, and her colleagues are working on. Although Gross is an engineer (not entirely surprising, an electrical engineer, but what is a bit outside the auto norm, she started out in engineering at an aerospace company), she is finding the challenges to create the required infrastructure to go beyond the technical to the personal and financial: “It takes time, money and education.”

And it takes commitment. And focus. And General Motors is applying both to its approach to automotive electrification.

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