• Jan 26th 2010 at 10:28AM
  • 15
Over the past century, two of the primary ways that carmakers have been able to distinguish their products is styling and powertrains. While styling has often been outsourced to various design studios, typically only the smallest automakers outsource powertrains. As the industry heads into the era of increasing electrification, the whole concept of the powertrain is evolving.

General Motors has decided that powertrains will remain one of its core competencies whether they are based on internal combustion or transferring electrons. To that end, GM has announced that it will become the first U.S.-based automaker to design, develop and manufacture its own electric motors. GM will invest $246 million on a high volume motor production facility that starts production for 2013.

[Source: General Motors]

During a background briefing, GM's Pete Savagian explained that a fuel tank in a conventional vehicle corresponds to the battery of an EV, while the engine controller equates to the power electronics and inverter and the internal combustion engine is analogous to the electric motor. All of these are core powertrain elements and GM has already announced it will produce its own battery packs and electronics.

Building a basic electric motor is not very hard. Building a good electric motor suitable for use in an electric or hybrid vehicle is a lot more complicated. The operating environment for a car is among the most varied for any consumer product. Creating a product robust enough to last two decades under widely varying temperatures, vibration and usage patterns is a non-trivial matter.

GM has decided that it must take a more active role in motors in order to ensure that the electrical analog of the engine meets its strict requirements. Because the battery retains extraordinarily poor energy density compared to any liquid fuel, the engineers must make up for it in other areas including the motor. Savagian highlighted the power density of the motor as critical. GM's motor engineers are working to improve power density with a goal of doubling it in the coming years. Getting more power from smaller motors allows for more packaging flexibility while also keeping weight down.

Having a strong in-house knowledge base about motors is also expected to give GM an advantage in adapting to technological changes and supply issues. One of the questions raised during the briefing regarded the availability of rare earth metals such as Neodymium for use in permanent magnets for motors. Savagian acknowledged that supplies of these materials could be a problem in the future. He said that GM could build motors that don't use these materials and they are likely to use non-permanent magnet motors for some applications.

Having a strong technological basis will also help GM create motors that run smoothly and quietly. The motor used in the Chevy Volt is particularly quiet as we found when we drove the prototype back in December. At this time GM hasn't announced who will build the Volt motors, although it doesn't appear those will be produced by the automaker at first.

The first application for GM's new motors will be the next generation two-mode hybrids, which are coming in 2013. GM put out a media advisory that it will make an announcement on January 26, 2010 at its White Marsh, Maryland transmission plant, so it seems likely that the plant that builds the current two-mode transmissions will be home to GM's first big motor line.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      I'm curious to know whether any of these new parts (particularly, the electric motors) will be sold through GM's parts catalog. I would be extremely ecstatic were this the case and I think it would be a very smart move if they could actually make a profit on them.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Very smart. Maybe Whitacre isn't the antichrist.
        • 5 Years Ago
        LAR*******: You act as if GM has no revenue stream. This company practically prints money. The car making/car selling business at GM actually makes them quite a bit of coin. Its all the other crap (Saab & Hummer) included that was dragging them down.

        Here's to hoping that they don't make a new set of BAD decisions, like they made in the past.

        • 5 Years Ago
        " GM will invest $246 million on a high volume motor production facility "

        Where is GM getting this money from? Don't they have investors to pay back? what about the bailout money, don't they have to pay that back?
        • 5 Years Ago
        lar, if you were paying attention, you would have noticed that GM plans to payback the TARP funds in June. GM is also planning an IPO, which will pay back the government for their shares. As for investors of the "original" GM, do you understand the concept of bankruptcy in the US?

        You need to continually invest in R&D and production facilities in order to run an automaker. As auto manufacturing goes, a $250M investment is relatively small.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Hey Lar: The point is of gov't loans is to allow the company to not only save itself from being flushed down the toilet but also invest in the future to remain competitive. I am happy that GM is investing in developing and manufacturing high technology right here in the US. That's the whole point.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Fair enough. Reinvention of the SBC?
      • 5 Years Ago
      This is VERY good news, not just for GM, but for America too.

      Bring home the technologies that will dominate the transportation industry over the next few decades. They already announced that battery assembly factory in Detroit a few weeks ago.

      If they announce that they are also researching ways to mass produce composite materials in-house then they will have positioned themselves to be in an incredibly strong position down the line as a technology leader in the car business.

      This is the type of long-term thinking that has been lacking from GM and actually most other US manufacturers (not just in the car business).
      • 5 Years Ago
      The name on the building is General Motors after all - and guess what, an internal combustion powerplant is an engine, not a motor (ask any engineer). Glad they are finally living up to their storied name.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think this is a very bad move for GM.

      They don't own electric motor patents or related IP. The electric car market isn't likely to grow quickly enough, soon enough, to enable a reasonable sales return on their investment. Their years behind cutting edge technology in this area. They don't have an electric car or truck planned for production(volt doesn't count its moreso a hybrid) which would allow them to fully exploit developing this technology in-house.

      The only reason for this type of move would likely have to do with compensating for an inferiority complex. Toyota and other japanese automakers build a vast majority of their components in-house and have done so for years. GM feels they have to do the same to be competitive.

      Unfortunately, they're years too late. Its a poorly designed and conceived business model. And it will fail.
        • 5 Years Ago

        "They don't own electric motor patents or related IP"
        They do have patents related to electric motors. Do a search for: GM "electric motor" , at patent sites. Also, Delco Propulsion Systems, a fully owned GM subsidiary, produced the EV1 / S10 EV motor. So the statement just isn't true.

        "Their years behind cutting edge technology in this area."
        I think you mean "they're" as in "they are" but either way it isn't true. First there was the EV1 which was 137hp (while Toyota and Honda had 67hp electric motors), OK, that was then. Now, GM's two mode hybrid system is more advanced than Toyota's (see next paragraph.) Which consists of *electric motors* in the transmission developed by a fully owned (at the time and they kept the division that did they two mode development and the patents) Allison Transmission. Then we have the Volt less than a year away which drives the vehicle 100% of the time with an electric motor. Yeah, GM is way behind on that technology.

        http://www.autobloggreen.com/2008/02/26/in-the-autobloggreen-garage-2008-lexus-ls600h-l-yeah-its-a-hy/ states the following:
        "The latest iteration of Hybrid Synergy Drive uses two liquid-cooled motor/generators integrated into the planetary gear electronically variable transmission, much like the GM Two-Mode. However, unlike the GM system, only one of the motors can provide drive torque."

        "They don't have an electric car or truck planned for production(volt doesn't count its moreso a hybrid) which would allow them to fully exploit developing this technology in-house."
        First of all, if the Volt wasn't driven 100% by an electric motor (i.e. no ICE goes to the drivetrain) and was a "traditional" hybrid it still would have to have an electric motor (or two in the transmission) and so essentially saying because it is a hybrid it doesn't count (as needing an electric motor) makes no sense. But since the electric motor propels the Volt and never an ICE propelling the Volt then the electric motor counts as a need for an electric motor. If you are going to have vehicles that require tens of thousands of electric motors made to go in them and you believe the future is electric motors (getting energy from batteries to fuel cells stacks, which GM does) it counts as a legit reason to make them yourself.

        "The only reason for this type of move would likely have to do with compensating for an inferiority complex."
        Because you've proven so well that they have no patents in it, they are way behind in it and they have no need for any electric motors right now. So it must be the reason. Other than GM using their fully owned Delco Propulsion Systems to make the EV1 / S10 EV motors (while Ford had Siemens make their motors for the Ford Ranger EV at the time) and fully owned Allison transmission to design and/or make the two mode hybrid motors, GM has never shown a propensity to design/make their electric motors in house before. So I know you must be right.

        "GM feels they have to do the same to be competitive."
        The only thing you've said that makes sense. But the reasons you imply prior are all wrong, of course. No one cares that Tesla has their motors made in Taiwan. So it isn't just to get customers who want American made motors as an example, people just don't care, it is to have control and uniqueness and therefore a competitive advantage. I think Ford fell victim to Toyota's supplier, Aisin, under supplying hybrid components. That could be another reason to go in house.

        "Unfortunately, they're years too late. Its a poorly designed and conceived business model."
        Talking about poorly conceived. You whole post fits that description.

      • 5 Years Ago
      It's better for branding that they have thier own powertrains.
      • 5 Years Ago
      One advantage of an electric engine is that there is just sooooo many ways to build one, that relatively all electric engines will be the same the only big difference will be in the storage of the juice as in the batteries........
      • 5 Years Ago
      Here's to hoping, it'd be nice to see GM succeed at making a robust high performance e-motor.
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