Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race?

Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race?

Part III: Tony Posawatz electrifies GM drivetrains with E-flex

General Motors threw down the gauntlet earlier this year by announcing it would be the first carmaker to introduce not just one plug-in hybrid, but two. It was long rumored that the Saturn Vue Green Line would be adapted as a plug-in hybrid — one that could be plugged into a household outlet and offer a limited all-electric range. But the announcement of the more futuristic and environmentally friendly Chevrolet Volt created widespread excitement for its styling and capability.

Cynics have learned to take these announcements with a grain of salt. It's easy for an automaker to grab headlines with what it intends to do without actually doing it. But these announcements from GM felt different. There was an unexpected level of urgency. Maybe the General would really come through this time, like it did in offering (though later retracting) the EV1 all-electric car.

In Part I and Part II, I spoke with two plug-in-hybrid experts for their perspective on this rapidly changing landscape. Now it's time to hear GM's side of the story.

How do you pronounce your name, and how do you describe your role at GM? I'm Tony Posawatz. I tell people it rhymes with "kilowatts." I'm the vehicle line director for the Volt and GM's E-flex propulsion systems. Effectively, I'm the guy in charge of bringing the electrically driven vehicles to market.

What is your area of expertise and your background? I've worked for 25 years at GM. I worked on the Escalade , Avalanche and cylinder-deactivation programs. I have a degree in mechanical engineering and an Ivy League MBA. We've been working on the Volt in the quiet of the night for a good year now.*

What does the "E-flex" designation mean? "E-flex" is what GM is branding all our electrical vehicle variants. Should GM do a full electric vehicle at some time, if the battery technology develops, that would be badged one of our E-flex systems. All of our fuel-cell initiatives will be put under this umbrella as well, because a fuel cell is nothing more than an electrically driven vehicle that happens to store energy on board in the form of hydrogen. With the Volt we have a bunch of potential variants. We could have a battery-based vehicle that drives electrically all the time, so that when the battery diminishes, it's recharged by a small-engine generator. It could be a small internal-combustion engine running on ethanol or diesel, E100 or a host of other variants.

People are excited about the Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid. When will it come to market? Sometime this year we will probably announce what the production dates will be.

What are the chances that the Chevy Volt will come to market? No production date has been announced. If I were to oversimplify, it is very contingent upon the pacing of development for the battery pack system.

We think that lithium-ion technology and chemistry has come to a point where we think it is ready for larger-scale application into an automotive environment. Right now the lithium-ion packs are in small devices such as cell phones and they are migrating into power tools. What we want to learn is how to take these small cells, combine them, make sure we can manage the charge-discharge environment, temperature, uniform cooling of those entities, make sure we can get the cost into a range consumers can afford.

(Note: Since this interview was conducted, Chairman Bob Lutz stated that GM's internal target for having the vehicle systems ready was 2010. Actual production depends on the availability of lithium batteries that meet the company's cost, safety and durability requirements. No dates have been announced for the Saturn Vue PHEV.)

We've heard that the battery contracts for the Vue have been awarded. Is this a sign of how serious GM is? Right now the contracts that have been awarded are development contracts. So that doesn't assure specifically that the suppliers in question have production contracts. Certainly it does give an indication that we feel that these guys have the best technology or the best chemistry. We will have a little bit of a competition, and we may choose both entities to protect our suppliers, or maybe choose one or the other. Ultimately, when a production supplier is selected will be about the same time frame we would make a production announcement.

When do you think people will be driving plug-in hybrids from GM? It all depends on the battery, it all depends on the battery.... We have a couple of plug-in hybrid projects that we are working on in a "production-intense" fashion. There are parallel activities going on. We could wait until someone puts a battery on the shelf, but it would take much too long. Or we could take a little bit of a risk and assume that, with the energy we've created, there could be an application near term rather than longer term.

Since these announcements were made, what kind of feedback have you gotten about developing a plug-in hybrid? People are very excited; they think GM is capable of the technology that ties all this stuff together. We've been in the EV world, the fuel-cell world and the hybrid world. Our leadership is serious about the mission and trying to get away from complete dependence on petroleum for 99 percent of our vehicle needs. The feedback we've gotten from people is resoundingly positive.

Let's say you take a Chevy concept car and get 40 miles of range with the battery, and you run E85 for an additional 20 miles a day. Then, if you drive 60 miles a day, you can get over 500 miles per petroleum gallon. That's pretty exciting stuff.

Some say GM is talking about plug-in hybrids to get good publicity without being serious about really bringing it to market. What do you say to those people? The types of vehicle we have selected, the Saturn Vue two-mode, that's a global product. When you look at the size of it, it would have reasonably good volume projections anywhere in the world. The Chevy Volt is about the size of a Chevy Cobalt, which is the single biggest product segment in the world. It was perceived by some as being too small. But it's something that has to go globally. You could have your motor generator set by region, whether you want diesel in Europe or E100 in Brazil. Now you have the opportunity to grow this thing in greater volume. That's why we chose a Chevy rather than a high-end niche vehicle. We've set these up for the opportunity to be volume plays in the future.

GM got a lot of bad publicity from the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? Is there a connection between the introduction of these plug-in hybrids and that movie? No. We spoke with some of the principals in the movie. Chris Payne [the film's director] asked me, "Did you see my movie?" I said, "Of course I did." He said, "Did it influence you?" I said, "I saw it three or four weeks ago, and I've been working on this thing for a year."

Did the EV1 help in your plug-in-hybrid development? Yes. We learned a lot from it. We at General Motors have a plethora of fuel-savings technologies that we are employing. We will see what resonates in the marketplace and what has the best chance of servicing customers long-term.

* As of January 2007.

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