Future Fuel Economy Mandates, Part IV: General Motors Engineering

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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