Up Against the Wall, GM Quests for the Perfect Electric Car

By Warren Brown
Sunday, May 3, 2009

WARREN, Mich. Here is where today meets tomorrow and where tomorrow bespeaks a brighter future for General Motors. It is home for the GM Technical Center, a corporate-academic campus dedicated to scientific research and experimentation.

It is one of those rare GM institutions allowed to do what it was established to do with relatively little interference from the company's normally meddlesome top brass.

That's lucky for GM.

Now, as it approaches its 53rd birthday on May 16, the Tech Center, as it is referred to locally, is preparing to play its biggest role ever. It will lead a New GM -- which might actually become the name of the company -- into a future in which oil plays a less dominant role in personal transportation.

To that end I have come here in the season of the automobile manufacturer's deepest discontent, one in which GM finds itself tussling with bondholders and holding onto hopes of more taxpayer loans in a desperate bid to avoid a court-supervised bankruptcy.

That struggle has become pro forma theater. Whether it is in or out of court, GM will undergo an accelerated restructuring -- severe in its historical and practical dimensions -- akin to reorganization under bankruptcy guidelines.

That creative carnage will yield a smaller, more agile GM, one less wedded to brands that sell poorly -- goodbye Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab -- and more attuned to changes in the automotive landscape and the technology those changes require.

Ironically, that was the Tech Center's mission when it was established in 1956.

Back then, when GM dominated more than 50 percent of the U.S. car market, divisions such as the soon-to-be-defunct Pontiac were more than marketing enterprises. They also had responsibilities for product development and design, each a fiefdom unto itself, replete with all of the redundancies and inefficiencies that divisional independence entailed.

The Tech Center helped to consolidate the functional aspects of those divisions. An engine or structural platform developed for Chevrolet served just as well for components used at Pontiac.

But the Tech Center's more esoteric research into matters such as alternative fuels and advanced battery power -- technology that seemed far off in the future and not much in demand, or even thought of by consumers of the moment -- often was treated with a wink and a nod by divisional heads primarily interested in moving as much metal as possible, selling trucks and cars.

The recession, more accurately viewed as a depression here in the Detroit metropolitan area, has changed all of that -- along with increased regulatory pressure from foreign and domestic governments for cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

That means, as it now goes about the painful business of remaking itself, GM is leaning more heavily on executives such as Robert (Bob) A. Kruse, executive director of GM's global vehicle engineering group for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries.

Kruse's mission is "to turn the electric vehicle into something that is a real replacement" for a gasoline-fueled car in the household.

He and GM are by no means alone in that pursuit. Every major car company nowadays has joined the race for the perfect electric car. And they are joined in that contest by smaller corporations, such as Seattle-based AFS Trinity, which is developing an "extreme hybrid" that can get the equivalent of 250 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Kruse said he is open to exploring batteries both theoretical and real presented by AFS Trinity and other groups. But, for the moment, in cooperation with battery developer LG Chemical of South Korea, Kruse said GM is concentrating on a lithium-ion-manganese power pack that can deliver 40 miles of pure electric service on a single charge, effectively allowing most American consumers to run for months without pumping gasoline.

Most Americans drive less than 40 miles daily. An all-electric car, or fossil fuel-electric hybrid that consistently and reliably delivers 40 miles of electric service between charges conceivably means they can run for weeks before pumping gas.

Kruse said the GM-LG Chemical battery can deliver that 40-mile service safely and reliably for 10 years, or 150,000 miles, after which the battery still would have a remaining 75 percent power reserve.

"But 75 percent is not enough to guarantee" the 40-mile-per-charge service pledge, Kruse said. But a battery no longer appropriate for automotive use could be useful in other applications, which is why GM is exploring the possibility of selling used GM-LG Chemical power packs to other industries.

People at the Tech Center long have suffered criticism from within and outside of GM that they are engaged in pipe dreams. But the hard evidence is that they now are on a road that could lead GM to a better, substantially more competitive place.

To prove its point, the Tech Center invited several automotive journalists from the United States and Canada to drive a prototype vehicle employing GM-LG Chemical battery technology. It worked perfectly.

The New GM plans to launch the first retail-ready generation of that technology in late 2010 in the Chevrolet Volt and, perhaps, in a Cadillac model. Subsequent generations, as the batteries become smaller and less expensive, will be installed throughout GM's vehicle lineup.

Success in that endeavor means that Tech Center's nerds, mostly young people who seem far more comfortable with computers than they are with wrenches, would have brought GM to a more viable place that the company's legions of gear-heads so far have failed to reach.

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