John 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.
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.
"Within the fuel-economy regulations, there is a "check-up" in 2017."
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.
ABG: I thought Gen II Voltec might be coming with the Cadillac ELR, but apparently not.
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.
The Cadillac ELR's powertrain is Gen I, like the Volt. Gen II "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.
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.
"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.
ABG: Doesn't GM's eAssist have to get better in incremental fuel-economy per dollar?
"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."
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.