There were lots of comments on my last two columns (speaking with Ford and Chrysler execs about CAFE regulations), and some were very savvy on EVs and hybrids. But most seem to have little knowledge of what really goes into designing, developing, validating and successfully marketing a desirable, reliable, long-term durable, incredibly complex, affordable and federally legal modern automobile – let alone making an honest buck doing it. But then who would, without substantial industry experience?

My new friend Nick, no fan of Ford's EV engineering capabilities, countered our earlier exchange with: "Tesla really IS a billion years ahead of these clowns, they've sold many times more EV platforms than Ford ever has, and is about to launch products that are far ahead of anything out there."

Really? Aren't Tesla's 2,100 $100,000-plus BEV roadsters converted Lotus sports cars, hardly dedicated-platform EVs? And won't its beautiful but long-delayed Model S and (much further out, the Model X) start around $50,000 after federal tax credits? That's not so affordable.

Nick also wrote: "Ford's EV tech development was outsourced to Azure Dynamics and Magna." True enough for the small-volume Transit Connect BEV commercial van conversion, but not Ford's upcoming Focus Electric and other electrified vehicles.

Anyway, I cornered so many General Motors folks at the auto shows that I'll divide their CAFE compliance comments into two columns, beginning with engineering leaders and following with designers and marketers. First up was Mary Barra, who replaced the colorful and controversial Bob Lutz as VP of Global Product Development.

"General Motors is committed," she said. "We have work to do, but we want to be part of the solution and lead on the technology to make that happen. It will be having the most efficient technology and getting scale to get costs down. When we get to the [2018] checkpoint, we'll see what technology advancements we have, what's feasible, how consumers are moving and what the price of gas will be. A lot of factors will play into it."

chevy spark ev

How large a role does she see electrification playing? "I think it will play a huge role, from mild electrification like eAssist to EREVs and pure EVs, like the Spark EV. It will be a portfolio of solutions, because customers and their needs are so different, and we want to make sure we will have the best ones that offer the best value."

It will be a portfolio of solutions, because customers and their needs are so different.

Will GM be able to sell many pure EVs? "It depends on specific customers. We will have this one [Spark] to learn from, and there may be environments for that, especially in different markets around the world. A lot depends on what happens with regulation and the price of fuel. We are also committed to getting the most efficiency out of the ICE, so it's a host of solutions, and there is still a lot of creation and invention yet to occur."

Next, we posed questions to Jim Federico, GM's vehicle line executive (VLE) for small cars and electrification. "Given my two jobs," he said, "I will have a huge role. I have my Sparks, Sonics, Cruzes, Volts and EV versions of some of those, plus what we're doing with mild electrification, hybrids and EREVs. We believe that the appropriate portfolio is the only way to get there. For any company that tries to do it with just one method, it will be a stretch.



"We will have to pick our methods and tools and continue to iterate and optimize by segment to get to the numbers for CAFE. It is going to be a challenge, and maintaining high-volume with affordability will be absolutely critical. But the more iterations we go through, the more costs will come down and prices and costs will start lining up. The Spark BEV will be much more affordable than an EREV and will meet some needs in some megacities. Depending on the states and their interest in building up their infrastructures, it will help a lot."

The Spark BEV will be much more affordable than an EREV and will meet some needs in some megacities.

Federico agrees that, while GM will need a diverse portfolio, it can't afford to invest in everything. "So where do we invest, what is the right portfolio, the right strategy? What makes sense for the future? High-volume, high-mpg cars with the best small-displacement, turbocharged, variable-valve-timing, direct-injected engines and the best transmissions will go a long way, but we will still have to stay on the leading edge of advanced technologies."

"Electrification will be a key part of our strategy and should play a larger role every year. Our original eAssist gave some improvement, but now we have lithium-ion, we're integrating the appropriate motor system, doing the aerodynamics and everything else. We can take a full-size Buick LaCrosse and deliver 36-plus real miles per gallon. Ten years from now, that may be our low-cost solution, but we'll still have stronger hybrids, plug-in hybrids and EREVs."

2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist

Can GM improve the practicality, affordability and appeal of electrified vehicles, especially pure electrics? "Yes, through integration and iteration. The Spark EV will have the right size and mass and the latest technology, and we will be able to deliver it in a very affordable way and be among the best for range. But the infrastructure needs to come to the party. The ones who want BEVs most are city dwellers who drive short distances, but they're mostly parking on the street. We need to give them the infrastructure, instead of running extension cords out their apartment windows. That is absolutely key."

We're not giving up on hydrogen fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells? "Absolutely. We're not giving up on that. We probably have more millions of miles of actual vehicles running out there than anyone else. You get to a point where you have it and can really do it, but to take the next step, it's cost and infrastructure."

From the other side of GM's product mix, we checked with Dave Leone, VLE for rear-wheel-drive and performance cars. "It is extremely challenging," he said. "But the way we will get there is through deployment of lightweight, efficient designs, technology and the right powertrain combinations. The new Cadillac ATS will have three engines, two of which are four cylinders that will achieve well over 30 mpg highway. We will need to deploy those technologies in more and more places, but every one of them costs money."

2010 Buick Enclave in white

Then we talked with Susan Eckel, VLE and Chief Engineer of GM's mid-size crossovers (Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia). "It's going to be overall efficiency of design, not just powertrain," she said. "Use of lightweight materials, aerodynamics, things like air deflectors, to keep getting more and more efficient, not having to put in a $15,000 hybrid system to meet those requirements. Our 288 hp sounds like a lot, but if you don't have to push the gas too far to get off the line and drive it, you're driving more efficiently compared to a smaller engine, where you're constantly mashing the throttle."

Will electrification play much of a role in her segment? "Sure. It already exists in our part of the market in the two-mode hybrid SUVs, and you can see things coming like eAssist and stop-start. These types of things will add two, three, four, five percent at a shot, so we can inch our way up to it in modest increments, not putting in a strong hybrid and putting it out of reach for most people. The people who need crossovers will still need that capability, whether it's hauling grandma, grandpa and the kids, carpooling, or carrying all the kids and their stuff to baseball. Our challenge will be to keep refining and improving it."

Next time: some very interesting comments from GM marketers and one visionary designer.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 49 Comments
      skierpage
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'm not sure how this canard that the Model S is "long-delayed" arose . I believe Tesla unveiled the Model S in March 2009, and reports at the time said "Tesla hopes to build 20,000 per year by mid-2012". Tesla now says deliveries will start by July 2012, that doesn't sound like much of a delay when making your first car in-house in your first factory.
        Letstakeawalk
        • 7 Months Ago
        @skierpage
        Another article (NY Times) about the delay in Model S production from 2010 to 2011: "The $100 million would have gone toward producing the Model S, the battery-powered sedan that Tesla had promised in 2010. Instead, the company delayed the car’s debut to mid-2011 and is waiting on a low-interest Department of Energy loan due in six to eight months. That will cover about three-quarters of the cost of the Model S. Tesla will try to raise another $50 million or so after the loan comes through." http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/24/musk-unplugged-tesla-ceo-discusses-car-troubles/
        Letstakeawalk
        • 7 Months Ago
        @skierpage
        You're only considering the "second" Model S - forgetting the first iteration that was supposedly completed in 2008. The whole (deemed unwarranted by the court) basis of the Tesla lawsuit was that Fisker had "stolen" their designs. The plant in NM was suppose to be started in 2007, and the four-door Tesla sedans were supposed to be rolling off the line by 2009. "The first cars will roll off the assembly line in the fall of 2009, and Tesla Motors will produce at least 10,000 cars each year. The vehicles will cost $50,000 for the standard model or $65,000 for a premium model with greater performance and range." http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/02/tesla_motors_to.html#more But hey, plans change. And Tesla did do a complete redesign after their failed lawsuit. The Whitestar Model S has finally made it to production, but it happened many years after it was originally planned.
      goodoldgorr
      • 3 Years Ago
      They said that they believe in hydrogen fuelcell because actual technology is subpar to it and that they wait for an infrastructure. They do big oil mandate that is to escape hydrogen fuelcells commercialisation even if goverments subsidized it and blame the lack of infrastructure. The goverment actualy do not push for hydrogen infrastructure and even if manufacturers said that they will begin commercialization in 2015 do not have plants for an infrastructure. So what happen is that big oil have given gifts to goverments and car manufacturers and journalists and we are plague by false pr all around.
        skierpage
        • 3 Years Ago
        @goodoldgorr
        "The goverment actualy do not push for hydrogen infrastructure" Why should they? Oil companies are free to set up H2 refueling stations, they choose not to because there are no HFCVs and even when there are cars, a teeny-weeny slice of the market will buy them instead of BEVs and plug-in hybrids. Governator Ahhnold "pushed" for a hydrogen highway in California, the fuel companies smiled for the camera and then did next to nothing. Who and why is anyone going to write the checks for H2 refueling stations?
          Chris M
          • 7 Months Ago
          @skierpage
          "Building codes"? Really? Then the H2 fueling stations that are already built are all code violations? Really? You've been using that excuse for years, and it's getting stale.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 7 Months Ago
          @skierpage
          "Oil companies are free to set up H2 refueling stations..." No, they can't. Their are still a large number of building codes, as well as design standards that must be created and instituted before large-scale construction of hydrogen refueling stations can be built. You can't just get a permit and build, at the moment.
      Sasparilla Fizz
      • 3 Years Ago
      Definitely sounds like GM should have a path to get to the CAFE ratings as they need to do bit by bit, nice to hear their perspective. Frankly I'm looking very warily at the coming Spark EV - hopefully GM surprises with the vehicle but if its based on the Beat EV that's been demonstrated and its 20kWh pack (the Beat EV uses alot of the pack capacity so it gives 80+ mile bragging range but long term for the pack....oh boy...) its looking to be alot less impressive than Magna's Ford's Focus Electric or the Nissan Leaf. You don't carve out a section of a future market (EV's) by saving money with mediocrity (reminds me of Ford with the Think City in CA in the 90's, about the same size and everything).
        Rotation
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Sasparilla Fizz
        The Spark is a lot smaller than a LEAF for Focus Electric. As such, the HP (kW draw) needed to move the car will be lower. 20kWh in a Spark shouldn't suffer any different amount of stress than 24kWh in a LEAF.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, Is it good to know the big vehicle manufacturers are now making Fuel Efficient Cars. I think we have the technology to build a good and cheap electric car, but I really don't know what the big vehicle manufacturers are waiting for... An electric motor is cheaper to build and lasts a lot long than a gasoline engines. In the meantime, I save lots of money using an Eco Friendly fuel treatment product that increases fuel economy and also Reduces Emissions. Check out the website below for more details on the fuel treatment product I use for my cars. http://universalfuelsaver.mysyntek.com
      1guyin10
      • 3 Years Ago
      You have to think that at some point in the future it makes sense that all vehicles are at least mild hybrids. As battery prices fall things like e-assist (which basically amounts to a super alternator tied to a modest size battery pack) will be standard issue. For now the car companies have to bet on many things because one great solution right now and may never be.
      Rotation
      • 3 Years Ago
      I think Tesla does a great job given their limitations. The Model S really is very well engineered for what it is. It takes better advantage of what electrification allows than any other car out there (of course, the Model S isn't quite here yet) including the LEAF. The LEAF is closer to the Roadster, being built on the same platform as a gas car (watch Revenge of the Electric Car to see the prototype LEAFs and you'll instantly realize how the LEAF is a modified Versa design). My real qualms with Tesla are the things they cannot do because of their limitations. They cannot make switchgear for the interior affordably, so they use a flat screen. They cannot source custom battery components as well as larger companies, so they use a different cell configuration. They cannot draw upon the huge piles of engineering resources and experience the larger companies have, so they will have mis-steps and as we've seen with the Roadsters, the customers will bear some of the bad effects of that. I think the big companies have a lot to bring to the table too. The LEAF is great, the Volt is very good also. Both products are pushing other companies to bring their own offerings and we're all benefiting from that. I'd love to see companies like Ford and BMW commit to EVs instead of factory conversions, but we'll just have to wait a bit longer I guess.
        DaveMart
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Rotation
        ?? BMW are engineering the i3 and i8 from the ground up, including the first use of carbon fibre in the passenger cell for mass production.
          DaveMart
          • 7 Months Ago
          @DaveMart
          I said:'including the first use of carbon fibre in the passenger cell for mass production.' I think it would be apparent to most that this remark refers to the presumably much more modestly priced i3 rather than the i8, which does show however that neither electrification nor carbon fibre use is to be confined as one-model wonder within the BMW range.
          DaveMart
          • 7 Months Ago
          @DaveMart
          BMW aren't building factories including those for carbon fibre production in two continents for fun. Perhaps a billion dollars or so counts as serious commitment. Their engineering demands respect, as does their sales record. This is not some start up giving electric and plug in hybrid vehicles a go.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 7 Months Ago
          @DaveMart
          BMW is already working more CFRP parts into their mass-production lines. The 2015 BMW 7er will make more extensive use of the material. http://www.autoblog.com/2012/02/29/next-gen-bmw-7-series-to-use-carbon-fiber/
          SVX pearlie
          • 7 Months Ago
          @DaveMart
          Have you seen the expected price of the i8? That's not really "mass production" any more than a Lotus is.
          Rotation
          • 7 Months Ago
          @DaveMart
          DaveMart: I doubt the i3 and i8 are the only cars BMW will use CF on.
          Rotation
          • 7 Months Ago
          @DaveMart
          The i3 and i8 aren't here yet, for starters. I'll give you a better evaluation once we know more. Right now, all BMW has is yet another conversion on the lease system. And it's pretty ugly, btw, I saw one yesterday. That hood bulge is not attractive, nor is the silly paint job.
      pmpjunkie
      • 3 Years Ago
      "Really? Aren't Tesla's 2,100 $100,000-plus BEV roadsters converted Lotus sports cars, hardly dedicated-platform EVs?" Gary, as an "industry expert" I am sure you know that Lotus developed an easily customizable vehicle platform to accommodate small series production runs. This platform was used to design and build a unique glider for the Roadster. That a layperson does not understand the difference is acceptable, but from an "expert" this statement is disingenuous at best. To follow up with "beautiful but long-delayed Model S and" discredits you more so than the target of your backhanded compliment. All the marketing blah blah that follows doesn't really contribute anything of value either. It only shows the degree of denial about available disruptive technology that is about to radically change the industry. That the big players don't jump into EV production is understandable. But to let Toyota run with the lead in hybrid technology they enjoyed for over a decade and are about to let the same happen with EV's again is beyond comprehension.
      PR
      • 3 Years Ago
      PS -- yes, that is a Bang & Olufsen® Advanced Sound System for about the price you used to be able to buy an entire brand new Geo Metro or Yugo... *grin*
      paulwesterberg
      • 3 Years Ago
      288hp is a lot, you don't need a big gas engine to provide adequate acceleration, a small electric motor the size of a watermelon is plenty.
      DaveMart
      • 3 Years Ago
      With the Focus EV Ford have achieved the remarkable feat of building a commuter/shopping car without anywhere to put said shopping. Not as sad as the ludicrously priced Connect, but not a serious car either. If Ford want to learn how to adapt an existing body and still leave space in the trunk, they should have a look at the Golf EV which is being produced in limited numbers. Ford are not serious about pure electric vehicles. Neither is GM, with their 'ambitious' plan to produce 2,000 Spark cars. Kudos however to GM for the Volt, and hopefully Ford will price their plug in hybrids at levels which will not consolidate their position as sad, loudmouthed loosers in the race to electrification, where they have talked a good game rather than producing worthwhile practical and economic cars and vans.
        SVX pearlie
        • 3 Years Ago
        @DaveMart
        With the FFE priced (slightly) higher than the Volt, it's not a good place to be. GM has already sold roughly 10k Volt, and another 2k Spark EV on top of at least another 10k Volt will bring GM EV sales over 20k. That's a stronger commitment than anyone bar Nissan.
      Sasparilla Fizz
      • 3 Years Ago
      Wow, GM just shut down Volt production for 5 weeks....this is seriously scary for plug-ins http://www.freep.com/article/20120302/BUSINESS0101/120302035/Volt-production-on-hold-for-5-weeks?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE
        1guyin10
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Sasparilla Fizz
        For the Volt it is. The real test of plug-ins will be when the Prius and Ford Fusion plug-ins arrive. The Prius plug-in in particular will be a good test of accepability of plug-ins. I don't think either Ford or Toyota have any delusions about selling 50K a year though. Getting people to pay twice the price for the same car is a tough order. Until battery prices come down volumes won't go up.
        DaveMart
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Sasparilla Fizz
        Yeah: '“Even with sales up in February over January, we are still seeking to align our production with demand,” said GM spokesman Chris Lee.' Very worrying.
      Nick
      • 3 Years Ago
      @Gary Witzenburg "My new friend Nick, no fan of Ford's EV engineering capabilities". --> If you cared to actually read what I wrote, you'd be aware that I never criticized Ford engineers. I criticized Ford execs for their lukewarm effort. Stop making up stuff and stick to facts, this isn't Fox. "Really? Aren't Tesla's 2,100 $100,000-plus BEV roadsters converted Lotus sports cars, hardly dedicated-platform EVs? And won't its beautiful but long-delayed Model S and (much further out, the Model X) start around $50,000 after federal tax credits? That's not so affordable." --> The Tesla Roadster sits on a platform it designed by Tesla engineers in California, and nearly all drivetrain components were engineered and sourced by Tesla. So to answer your question, yes, "really". Regarding the $50,000 Teslas, it's an excellent price considering what you get, and nearly 40% off the price of my POS A6. "Nick also wrote: "Ford's EV tech development was outsourced to Azure Dynamics and Magna." True enough for the small-volume Transit Connect BEV commercial van conversion, but not Ford's upcoming Focus Electric and other electrified vehicles." --> Okay, one more time for Gary Witzenburg: All EV tech inside the Ford Focus EV was developed by Azure Dynamics and Magna, as was the previous-gen Focus EV unveiled in 2010. and the Transit Connect. Ford took the project in-house very recently, once the tech was fully developped. Facts are facts Gary, get used to it.
        JakeY
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Nick
        I think you missed something else. Tesla has already provided battery packs for the Smart ed (and some kind of Fedex truck), and will also do so (plus drivetrain components) for the RAV4-EV and the A-class EV. That's more than a lot of other automakers have done. @Letstakeawalk I think the biggest contention is when people say the Roadster is "just a converted Elise" (Gary adjusted that argument to "just a converted Lotus"); that's when people point out the significant amount of changes done to the chassis and the low amount of parts content shared with the Elise. Both claims (designed by Tesla engineers / compromised by Lotus frame) are not mutually exclusive: Tesla may have done a lot of engineering work on designing the Roadster chassis and layout, but still having to work with the limitations of the manufacturing capability of Lotus. However, the powertrain development was all Tesla, something that probably doesn't apply to the Ford EVs.
        Rotation
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Nick
        A6s are $70K now? Holy cow.
        ufgrat
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Nick
        I'm pretty sure the term thrown about most often regarding the Tesla roadster and it's Lotus parentage is "glider"-- a car with no powertrain. Since the powertrain in the Tesla is a few thousand laptop-class cells thrown together and an electric motor bolted into the custom diff, sure the powertrain is "all tesla"-- It has very little in common with Lotus. But to claim that Tesla designed the entire platform (a full rolling Lotus Elise) is a claim even Elon Musk would be unlikely to make with a straight face.
        Letstakeawalk
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Nick
        I made the argument here on ABG that the Roadster was designed by Tesla engineers, and was shot down pretty quickly with the comment that it was a seriously compromised design. The biggest deficiency being the location of the battery pack - too high and too far from center - which seriously degraded the handling (in the opinion of the fellow challenging my praise for the design). I was told that even Tesla engineers - one apparently quoted at the recent Model X launch - were much less than pleased with the compromises they were forced to make. So, I've heard it spun *both* ways: the Roadster was custom designed by Tesla using licensed tech from Lotus; and the the Roadster was a compromised, modified Lotus frame that Tesla which resulted in less than Teslas' preferred result.
          marcopolo
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Letstakeawalk
          @LTW IMHO, it's not really relevant how much input was Lotus. Over the years nearly every major automaker has commissioned specialist, coach builders, custom engine builder, transmission, fuel injection systems, chassis design, etc for a wide range of models. None of the vehicles are considered as anything but legitimate models of the commissioning marque. (Brand engineering excepted). The concept of the Tesla Roadster is what counts, and the concept is 100% Tesla. If you dissected any popular model for in-house original engineering without any outside influence, you'd have a horse!
          Letstakeawalk
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Letstakeawalk
          I agree. Which is why I took the position that Tesla engineers should be given credit for what they did in designing the Roadster chassis.
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Nick
        Regarding the Tesla Roadster design, while Tesla Motors did start with a Lotus Elise, Tesla Motors hired Lotus Engineering to design / modify the frame of the vehicle to support their power-train and battery pack, because Lotus Engineering is expert in their special frame technology. Having done similar design work, in which you take an existing product and convert it to something specialized, I know what Tesla Motors means (if you read all their old blog posts) when they say that a very high percentage of all parts in the Tesla Roadster are unique to Tesla Motors, and not the Lotus Elise. The things they kept the same were the steering column with air bag, etc., as it was already approved, and other similar items. Of course there are compromises when you are trying to stuff 10 pounds of crap in a 5 pound bag, and many things become suboptimal - no news there. Those experiences lead to the current design features found in the Tesla Model S. As for the price, so what if it is high priced, it's still viable if an automaker can earn a profit, so high price alone is NEVER a disqualification for a viable product. As for GM, they are extremely well positioned with mild hybrid, EREV and fuel cell technologies, and can blend those together to cover any market opportunity in between,.
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