john lauckner gmJohn Lauckner, one of the masterminds behind General Motors' breakthrough Chevrolet Volt EREV, has a full bag of big responsibilities these days that he calls the "technology trifecta." First, he is GM's chief technology officer. Second, he's R&D vice president. Third, as if those two jobs were not enough, he's president of GM Ventures, the company's venture capital subsidiary. "Basically," he says, "I'm deeply involved in technology."

I caught up with him for a brief chat at the Detroit North American International Auto Show in January and started with the same big question I've asked a lot of industry executives lately:

ABG: How will GM, or any full-line manufacturer, meet future Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates, and California's ZEV mandate? You will be required to sell increasing numbers of zero-emission EVs and other electrified vehicles regardless of consumer demand for them?

JL: We're going to have to schedule some invention. If you look at the technology we're working with today, you have one view of what's possible. But the technology is rapidly changing, so we focus on five areas where we think important breakthroughs will likely occur:
  • One, automotive clean tech and propulsion-related technologies. That means batteries. motors, power electronics, emissions control devices and fuel economy technologies.
  • Two, connected vehicles and infotainment, where information and entertainment intersect.
  • Three, advanced materials – lightweight, eco-friendly and space-change materials, and forming technologies – the kinds of materials that cars and trucks of the future will be made of.
  • Four, sensors, processors, and memory. There is a lot of capability that more advanced sensors, processors and memory will let us unlock.
  • And five, manufacturing-related technologies.

"Within the fuel-economy regulations, there is a "check-up" in 2017."

Those are not the only areas where we will see new technology, but those are the ones where we believe that having a competitive advantage will probably drive longer-term and more sustainable benefits. Also, within the fuel-economy regulations, there is a "check-up" in 2017, where we will see where we are and figure out what that means for the regulations in place for beyond that time.

2013 chevrolet volt

ABG: But by 2017, you will have already released 2020 vehicles and powertrains.

JN: Because of our lead times, that's correct. Within that timeframe, we will already have several years' worth of vehicles loaded into our product development process. There's no doubt it's difficult, but the regulations are in place, and we will have to meet them, so what is the mix of vehicles and technologies that will get us to where we need to be?

ABG: Volt seems to be doing fairly well today despite its early challenges.

JN: We did have a lot of challenges to overcome. But now that we are on the other side of that, Consumer Reports, who a lot of people look to for buying recommendations, publishes a list of vehicles top rated by their survey respondents, and for two consecutive years, the Volt has been number one. The acid test question is something like, "All things considered, would you choose to repurchase this vehicle?" And the Volt ends up being number one with something like 93 percent of respondents saying, "Yes, I would buy the Volt again."

ABG: Your internal customer feedback has also been strong, I think the best of any GM car ever. Is it still?

LN: It is still extremely strong. We continue to rack up millions and millions of petroleum-free miles, and you are seeing other manufacturers working on propulsion systems that are looking eerily similar to what we have in the Volt.

cadillac elr

ABG: I thought Gen II Voltec might be coming with the Cadillac ELR, but apparently not.

The Cadillac ELR's powertrain is Gen I, like the Volt. Gen II "is still a few years away."

LN: The battery cell that we started with has evolved a little since start of production, but it is still largely what we would characterize as Gen I. I think where you will start to see cost and energy density improve dramatically is when you get Gen II lithium-ion technology out of the labs and into vehicles, and that is still a few years away.

ABG: Does the next generation of the system depend on the next-generation battery?

LN: While power electronics and motor technology are also changing over time, the battery is the single biggest cost driver in extended-range and battery-electric vehicles, and Gen II battery technology is not many years away. That is where you will start to see energy density moving up very significantly from where we are today. And, because cost per kilowatt hour is highly correlated, that's where you will see the cost of these systems, for the same range, start to come down.

You can make choices about whether you want to preserve capability and take all of the improvements in lower cost and, or increase capability, or do a combination of both. That is something that every manufacturer will need to decide for itself. But the inherent technology that will allow you to make those choices is on the horizon.

ABG: The battery is the biggest cost driver, but what about the added cost of dual propulsion systems in an EREV? I don't see that coming down much for a while yet.

"Traveling the same range will require a smaller battery than we have today."

JN: If you're talking about current technology, that is probably correct. But when you start to talk about Gen II and Gen III battery technology, the costs can come down. Those technologies will allow us to have more capable lithium-ion batteries than we have today, which means higher energy density, and therefore lower cost per kilowatt hour. So traveling the same range will require a smaller battery than we have today.

ABG: Some battery people are promoting advanced lead acid for applications such as eAssist, where you don't need much battery capacity, and perhaps for hybrid batteries that combine some amount of low-cost lead acid for power with enough lithium-ion to get sufficient range. That could lower total battery cost substantially.

JN: That may not be out of the question for some applications, but it is not a technology you're going to see in EREVs, BEVs or PHEVs. The industry has moved to lithium-ion. Perhaps together with some lithium-ion, lead-acid could be used for stop/start systems and micro hybrids. But the vast majority of the business is going to be lithium-ion because it's a way more capable technology, it's got way more energy density, its lighter, and it can be used to generate very significant power density, if that's the way you want to bias the battery.

ABG: But it's so expensive.

JN: That's where we need Gen II and Gen III technologies. That is the pathway to lower-cost BEVs, EREVs and, to a certain extent, PHEVs.

2012 Buick Regal eAssist

"It's always going to be the case that Gen I is where it is, Gen II will bring significant improvements, and by Gen III you will see that cost gap narrow quite considerably."

ABG: Doesn't GM's eAssist have to get better in incremental fuel-economy per dollar?

JN: We like where we are with eAssist. A first-generation technology is always a capability that you appreciate but wish the cost was lower. You get to Gen II and start to move the cost down significantly. Then finally, when you move into Gen III and beyond, you see a fairly significant level of parity.

For example, look at ABS braking systems in the mid-1980s. Today, because of generational improvements in that technology, you see fully-integrated systems with costs far lower. And there is no reason to believe that electric vehicle technology will follow a different course. It's always going to be the case that Gen I is where it is, Gen II will bring significant improvements, and by Gen III you will see that cost gap narrow quite considerably.

And, as you know, the whole idea of extended-range electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles is that electricity as a fuel is way less expensive than petroleum. So when you start to narrow that cost gap, you have very significant operating cost advantages.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 19 Comments
      EVSUPERHERO
      • 1 Year Ago
      Witzenputs: How much would Ev's be if they were produced on a scale of ICE vehicles, "ie" pollution piles. Answer: They would be one third of the cost of each model we now produce but we would only make a fraction of the profit off parts and service that we currently do Gary. As you can see we must keep manufacturing our pollution piles for as long as possible, oil addiction is no big deal, there is lots of dirty shale oil left to be extracted and Americans won't demand anything more until pollution juice gets to 10 dollars per gallon. Witzenputs: Could you make a better PU truck for Americans? Yes we could but you see we are selling our antiquated PU's in record numbers still so why should we make anything better. Sure we could make a PU that would go the first 35 miles without pollution juice but once again, Americans will have to wait for Nissan to do that or until pollution juice gets to 10 dollars per gallon, which ever comes first Gary. You see we are in this business to stay in business not to do anything revolutionary. Our advertisement changes from time to time but that is about it.
        Marcopolo
        • 1 Year Ago
        @EVSUPERHERO
        @ EVSUPERHERO I'm going to try to explain this to you. Just because you want something to happen, or believe it should, doesn't automatically make it possible ! Elon Musk, and Tesla deserve encouragement and praise for manufacturing 20,000 EV's per year. While not still not a volume manufacturer, it's a very significant achievement. But for GM or the giant Auto-makers, the circumstances are very different. GM employs 212,000 people in some 157 countries, revenue of US$ 150.276 billion, and produces nearly 10 million vehicles world wide. . GM has responsibilities to it's vast chain of suppliers. GM certainly doesn't want to follow Renault-Nissan by investing $ 6-7 billion in producing products like the Leaf. The Leaf is a good little car, but it's sales figures outside Japan, are very disappointing. As for your question, "How much would Ev's be if they were produced on a scale of ICE vehicles". The answer, you don't want to believe ! The truth is that the production is driven by sales, not sales by production. There is only a certain amount of unit cost savings that can be achieved by mass production. The cost of lithium, would increase as demand escalated, (Unless a cheaper method of extraction can be discovered). I know it's not what EV enthusiasts want to hear, but even the biggest corporations face very complex market conditions, and simplistic solutions can (as GM has learned) have drastic consequences. EV technology is part of a slow process of automotive evolution, not an urgent, disruptive, revolution !
      Marcopolo
      • 1 Year Ago
      John Lauckner, has a very difficult and complex job (s). Working as a senior executive of giant corporation is not as easy as people imagine. Senior executives rapidly discover that like politicians, they have little power to make real changes, a lot of responsibility, little appreciation, and spend most of their time in co-ordinating with other executives. One boss at Toyota described his job as like " trying to steer an unruly and obstinate Elephant by the ears" ! John Lauckner, is a very bright guy, and GM is lucky to have recruited such a talented executive. I'm continually amazed at the ignorant, and unpatriotic abuse, American executives like John Lauckner,have to put up with from their own countrymen ! The Voltec drive-train, is an incredible example of US technology and industrial excellence. It took every manufacturer, (including Toyota) , by surprise, and with the application of Voltec technology to models like the ELR Cadillac and other vehicles GM's world reputation is once again reaching heights unknown for generations. John Lauckner, has been part of that GM revival.
      Levine Levine
      • 1 Year Ago
      GM technology? That's an oxymoron. GM has no cutting-edge techology worth discussing. GM has not been a leader in Fuel Cell, Hybrid, Plug-in, or EV. GM is and has been run into the ground by Bean Counters and Smooth-Talking-Marketing Shmoozers. Today's GM domestic market share has dwindles to less than 24% and will continue downward as import brands continue to expand factories, capacity, models, and market share. GM is a DOA. The Fat Lady has sung.
        brotherkenny4
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Levine Levine
        How about using the word "mastermind" when referring to a GM executive. That's hillarious.
        Giza Plateau
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Levine Levine
        What you fail to take into account is that the other car makers are equally incompetent combined with a populace who is ignorant and loves the low tech wasteful products GM makes so no, GM is not DOA, they are making quite a bit of money. They make spam for the pigs and they are making a killing.
          Giza Plateau
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Giza Plateau
          If shoe fits.
          Spec
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Giza Plateau
          That's right, Dan. Everyone is an idiot except for you and your magic car that you are unable to produce.
      Ford Future
      • 1 Year Ago
      I think what I heard, 3 times, was that there was going to be a Gen II, and a Gen III. Good News.
      Louis Choquette
      • 1 Year Ago
      My green box does show the number of comments
      EVSUPERHERO
      • 1 Year Ago
      Witzenputs: Lithium is so expensive! JN: Not really Gary, you see all the battery manufacturers think that landing a deal with a OEM is the holy grail for their company. What we do is drive them down to a cost of .32 cents a ah and they almost go bankrupt. When they go out of business we can then claim lithium batteries are so expensive. It's a perfect circle jerk Gary, you know that, you use to work for us.
      Dave
      • 1 Year Ago
      GM executives have an amazing ability to talk endlessly without saying anything.
      Giza Plateau
      • 1 Year Ago
      Rather terrible questions but then I see it's done by Gary Witzenburg so that's to be expected.
      Spec
      • 1 Year Ago
      Why did they remove the number of comments from that green box? That was a useful feature.
      Roy_H
      • 1 Year Ago
      He stopped just short of saying that they have no interest in advanced lead acid. When lithium ion becomes as ubiquitous as lead acid in the auto world, it will be just as cheap per pound. For a look at gen 2 battery see: http://enviasystems.com/
        DaveMart
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Roy_H
        Its about time a stake was driven through the heart of the use of lead. If it were not in general use it would never be authorised today, and it has adverse consequences down to very low doses. Much of the damage is now caused by the actual mining and refining, together with its continued use in aviation fuel: Continuing health effects http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=lead-exposure-on-the-rise&page=2 I look forward to its replacement by lithium in starter motors, and finally getting to grips with the decades long process of getting rid of it in the environment. The half life for lead toxicity is forever.
        Levine Levine
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Roy_H
        Someone is a shill for enviasystem.com. Envia is going nowhere. Several Li-battery makers already dominate the market: Panasonic, Toshiba, LGChem, A123, not counting some of the other Chinese battery makers.
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