As we know, another major automaker investing heavily in electrified vehicles is General Motors, and it's doing things much differently than rivals BMW, Ford or Nissan. The Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV is a modest seller at its $35,000 sticker price but a huge hit with owners. The Chevy Spark BEV, still in limited availability, puts smiley faces on its owners and drivers. The just-introduced Cadillac ELR, a sharp-looking, fun-driving $76,000 luxocoupe take on the Volt's EREV mechanicals, has admittedly low sales expectations.
With this interesting trio in showrooms and much more in the works, the third vehicle electrification leader I collared for an interview at Detroit's North American International Auto Show (see #1 and #2) was Pam Fletcher, GM's executive chief engineer, Electrified Vehicles.
ABG: Why do your EREVs need four-cylinder power to extend their range when BMW's i3 makes do with an optional 650 cc two-banger?
PF: I get that question all the time: why not something smaller? You don't really need that much. You use the electric to its ability, then you just need to limp. But we designed those cars to go anywhere, any time, and we don't want their performance to be compromised. If you're driving through the mountains, we don't want you to be crawling up grades, or to be limited on any terrain. So it's optimized to be able to travel literally the biggest grades and mountain roads around the globe at posted speeds. Because what if you can't?
"We designed [the Volt and the ELR] to go anywhere, any time" - Pam Fletcher
Another good reason: when the engine is on, you have to run it wide open throttle, max speed, most of the time. And while we can do a lot with acoustics, and the ELR has active noise cancelation, a small-displacement, low cylinder-count engine at high speed, high load all the time isn't something you want to live with. That's how we came up with the balance we did among the key factors of performance, NVH [noise, vibration and harshness] and range.
ABG: Where you go from here? Is the range-extender engine due for an update?
PF: We know and love the current Volt, and there is still a lot of acclaim about it, so we think it's a good recipe. But we are heavily in the midst of engineering the next-generation car, which I think everyone will love and be excited about. The acclaim of the Volt, and the Spark EV, has exceeded expectations, so our intent is to continue rolling out products that surprise and delight and exceed customers' expectations. The next-gen Volt will continue that success.
ABG: Will we see more electrified vehicles coming from GM?
PF: There will be more electrified vehicles. We have said that we expect to have fairly high production by the 2017 timeframe, and it will take multiple solutions to achieve the kind of volumes we've discussed. As with conventional cars, one solution does not meet everyone's needs. So we will have to offer a variety of solutions, which will come in different architectures, sizes and body styles, as well as different technologies.
ABG: Are we likely to see other GM vehicles and brands with EREV capability?
PF: Everything is possible.
ABG: What about a small crossover, maybe about Buick Encore size?
PF: In conventional vehicles, we see huge appetites for crossovers, from small ones like the Encore, which has exceeded both customers' and our expectations, to full-size crossovers. So why would it be any different for electrified vehicles? I'll take that under advisement [laughs].
"Why would it be any different for electrified vehicles?"
ABG: Is the Opel Ampera essentially a European Volt, and how successful has it been?
PF: Yes, the Ampera is essentially the same car except for what each one needs for compliance in its own market, and some differences in customer preference. And it has won its own acclaim in that market. It has been very well received and has won a lot of awards.
ABG: What will be the primary missions of that next-generation Volt beyond a next-generation EREV powertrain?
PF: The idea first is just to make it a great product. We want to continue coming out with products that just blow people away and exceed their expectations, because as you go through different segments of the market, what blows people away differs. But the other side is the cost equation. This technology is still expensive, so we are working very hard on trying to get further down the cost curve.
"This [EV] technology is still expensive."
ABG: Does it matter much to the EREV buyer how far it can go on battery before the engine starts? With this next generation, would it make sense to add battery and/or improve vehicle efficiency to boost EV range by a few miles, or is the higher priority getting the cost down?
PF: Of the 50,000-plus Volts out there, on average 82 percent of the energy they use comes from a plug, not a pump. The battery is the most expensive asset on the car, so if we look at asset utilization, I think we got the balance about right, and it's meeting most customers needs. In the beginning, we had to place a bet, 40 miles was it, and it's looking like a pretty good bet. Would we like to make that 82 percent a different percentage? Maybe. I think that getting to where most people's daily needs are met electrically is a priority, but so is getting the cost down. If we put more battery in the car, it will cost more. If we put less in, it will cost less. As much as people love the car, their number one complaint is that it costs too much, so that is a huge priority.
ABG: If you can improve the vehicle's efficiency, you could get a few more miles out of the current-size battery? Or downsize it to take some cost out without reducing the EV range.
PF: Those are all options.