Following my session with General Motors North America President Mark Reuss at Detroit's January North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), I caught up with two technology leaders playing key roles in GM's vehicle electrification process: Volt chief engineer Andrew Farah – a hard-working, no-BS positive thinker whom I knew and worked with on GM's 1990s EV program – and Micky Bly, who is executive director for electrical systems, hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries. The question on my mind: where is GM headed with its Voltec EREV technology?

"We're already looking at other portfolio opportunities," Farah responded cautiously, "but nothing to announce just yet. We're also looking into what Generation II might be. Among other things, we need serious cost reductions."

Bly pointed out that the most important objective is keeping quality up. "The supply chain is very long," he said. "You can have quality issues if you try to go too fast. The complexity is higher than on any other vehicle, so we have to ramp up very carefully."

I asked whether GM can keep up with demand over the next couple of years. Farah confirmed the then-official production numbers of 10,000 units in calendar 2011 and 30,000 in 2012, which will include some 15,000 Opel and Vauxhall Amperas (and some right- and left-hand-drive Volts) for Europe. (This post continues after the jump.)

But we all know that GM chairman Dan Akerson has announced that the 2012 total will increase 50 percent to 45,000 and this number has apparently climbed further. I sense the classic conflict between cautious engineers and product people wanting to ramp up slowly to avoid the risk of bad parts from suppliers resulting in faulty cars and leadership people wanting to pump out as many as possible as fast as possible to meet consumer demand and, they hope, eventually turn some profit. But "chasing volume would be irresponsible," Reuss had said just earlier that morning.

I asked how they could increase the Volt's electric-only range. "The question is, should we?" Farah countered. "Can we still have a well-balanced vehicle – including the cost balance – if we add more battery?" I was really asking about improving the vehicle's efficiency, not increasing its battery size, and Farah confirmed that's an ongoing effort.

What about upping the amount of the battery's energy that can be used from the current 65 percent, as Nissan (and others) have done in battery-only EVs? "We think that balance is about right," he responded. Of course, how much of a battery's energy is available for use is far more important in a (no-backup) BEV than in an EREV with a range-extending ICE.

"We have to look at every incremental opportunity for efficiency," Bly chimed in. "We'll continue to use the Volt as a platform for technology development – Powermat wireless charging, for example. But we have no near-term plan to go beyond 65 percent, because the more of the battery's charge you use, the more you degrade its life."

chevy volt powermat charger

A bit later that day, I had a chance to sit down with Karl-Friedrich Stracke, an impressively enthusiastic German engineer who came up through the ranks at GM's Adam Opel subsidiary and was named GM vice president for global vehicle engineering in December 2009. I asked how GM planned to carry out its stated objective of product and technology leadership, especially since every other major maker has exactly the same objective.

"In two to three years, GM will be best-in-segment in every area and every technology."
"We are damned serious about designing and building the world's best vehicles," he responded. "Our products are good already, but we can't stand still. We need to move aggressively forward. There are a lot of things we still need to improve, and we will not make the mistakes some others have made." Was he referring to Toyota? He wouldn't say.

"We understand that we have gaps to close in some areas right now, but we have developed strategies to be the leader in every area, from infotainment to quality, and in two to three years, we will be best-in-segment in every area and every technology. We have changed our strategies for how to execute and integrate the vehicle at a higher level. Assuming our competitors will also improve, we will have to move faster and improve faster to stay ahead. It's a question of execution, since everyone has the same strategy.

"This is not the old GM any more," Stracke added (echoing Reuss). "We need to continue Bob Lutz's efforts to be the best, but we have to optimize costs as well. We need smart engineers to do that, and that's why we're hiring the best and brightest young engineers. We need 'megatronic' engineers with both electrical and mechanical skills, because those skills will make the difference. [These young engineers] are proud to work for GM and to work 100 percent on green technologies. They want to redefine the DNA of the automobile."

We asked how GM will meet CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) requirements while retaining both affordability and desirability. "That's why we need those engineers," he said, "and aggressive cost programs. We will maybe break even on the Gen I Voltec, but we have a plan already for Generation II, and we'll make money on it. Higher volume will reduce the cost with more suppliers involved and more cost-reducing ideas from suppliers.

"We would lose money today meeting 2020 CAFE, but we have nine years to go, and we can get there in those nine years. We have a plan to take significant cost out of batteries, drive motors, brakes, etc. while improving quality at the same time. We have a plan for 2020, but not yet for 2025. The CAFE targets going forward will not be easy. They will be damned difficult. But we're going for double-digit numbers on cost reduction and quality improvement."

Time will tell, for GM and everyone else. But you have to admire the guy's attitude.

# # #

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.


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