While it's typical for automakers to put sales, marketing and (sometimes) design execs out there, if anyone else sent its top technology types out for media grilling at Detroit this year, I was unaware of it. And that is why I had the opportunity to interview both GM chief technology officer John Lauckner and global electrification director Larry Nitz. I began by asking Nitz about the cost vs. benefit of GM's mild-hybrid eAssist system standard on the mid-size Buick Regal and available on the Buick LaCrosse and Chevy Malibu.
"I hope that we can look back at the Volt in 20 years as the inflection point where we started this journey."
LN: We're in our second generation of eAssist, and we're very bullish on it because it provides a couple of fundamental things – regenerative braking and load shifting – that can improve the fuel efficiency of a combustion-engine car in ways that other technologies can't. The electric motor provides added torque that allows us to balance the car differently to improve highway fuel economy. It's not knock-limited [unlike turbocharging], and you don't have to put more air in, charge it and spark it to get extra torque when you want or need it.
ABG: Are you satisfied with where the Chevrolet Volt is today?
LN: I hope that we can look back at the Volt in 20 years as the inflection point where we started this journey. For many of us who drive a Volt all or most of the time, it represents a balance of gas-free commuting with drive-anywhere capability, and the cost of ownership is pretty compelling, after the initial cost, because of the cost of electricity vs. petroleum. My daughter has a Volt and loves it because it's fun to drive, it does everything she wants it to do, and she doesn't need to go to a gas station very often.
ABG: Do you see much volume opportunity for BEVs like the Chevy Spark?
LN: Maybe a BEV can be a first car for a very limited segment of the population, but many, many households in the US have two cars. I feel that if it can be the second car, we will have cracked the BEV code of success. It takes affordable cost – not just the cost to buy it but the total cost of ownership: fuel, maintenance, insurance and everything else – and a certain usage pattern. What will it take to get that cost of ownership to a point where it can become the second car in people's families? That's something we are working on every day. Will it become a mass-market car over time? I think it's too early to tell.
"Will EVs become mass-market cars over time? I think it's too early to tell."
ABG: How can you improve both affordability and desirability of BEVs?
LN: We have two generational approaches on technology, which continues to get better. Even though our batteries are still big, they are getting better, more capable, more compact and less costly. The motors and electronics are getting better as well, and their cost is coming down as we're finding points of efficiency. Another factor is sharing technology, parts and components among electrified vehicles. We're looking at it holistically, across product lines, not just one product at a time. The Spark EV's charger, some of its power electronics and more than 70 percent of its drive unit are shared with the Volt. The motor is not exactly the same, but it comes from the same family of motors, so we can build it flexibly on our production equipment.
"The Spark EV's charger, some of its power electronics and more than 70 percent of its drive unit are shared with the Volt."
ABG: The BEV as a second car may be fine for short commutes, but there is still range anxiety on days when you need to go further.
LN: In EV1 days, there was not much of an infrastructure. Today we're getting some buds, some green shoots of an infrastructure. Where cars are when they're not being driven is at home and at work, and getting a second charge at work doubles the utility of a BEV. You can double your range or reduce your range anxiety. Or maybe reduce the battery size.
ABG: Do GM people who drive Volts have the opportunity to plug in at work?
LN: We're putting in more and more charging stations at every site, both level I and level II, but probably don't have enough yet for everyone. It's still first-come, first-served.
ABG: So someone will miss out when there are more EVs than plugs.
LN: That's true. But what infrastructure is needed? If I have N Volts, do I need N+1 chargers? It's never going to line up perfectly, but that's the beauty of the Volt – it doesn't have to because the at-work charge is not mission critical. I think the bigger challenge will be plug-in cars vs. BEVs. If there is one charger at work and two plug-in cars, a BEV and a Volt, maybe the Volt got there first, but it's mission critical for the BEV.
"If I have N Volts, do I need N+1 chargers? It's never going to line up perfectly."
ABG: Since the Volt's debut, we've been hearing that Gen II Voltec technology will bring the cost down. Does any of Gen II arrive with the 2014 Cadillac ELR?
LN: The ELR's propulsion system will not be branded as "Voltec," but it will be Gen I improved in a bunch of little ways. There will also be Cadillac-exclusive upgrades, including more power, that will not go back into the Volt.
ABG: Anything you would like to add?
LN: We are committed to electrification as a long-term journey. It will not overtake the world instantly, but it does provide a reasonable, rational opportunity to get off of petroleum to an alternative fuel, electricity, that can come from many different sources.