Is GM Putting Too Much on Batteries?

March 13, 2007

General Motors is charged up about electric power, but will the lack of the right batteries short-circuit high-profile projects, such as the Chevrolet Volt, the plug-in hybrid that garnered so much attention at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this month?

Okay, it’s easy to get caught up in all the punning, but the subject is deadly serious – and could affect the long-term transition away from petroleum, never mind the competitive nature of the auto industry.

Let’s face it: the giant automaker has a credibility issue. It’s no longer seen as the industry leader in many communities, and that includes many lawmakers, rule-makers and other opinion leaders. Many now look to GM’s arch-rival, Toyota, to set the pace when it comes to environmentally-friendly automobiles. So the Detroit maker had a lot riding on the roll-out of the Volt, which it claims could let most U.S. commuters go to work solely on battery power.

For longer drives, the Volt would still be able to fire up its internal combustion engine. There’s only one problem, cautioned GM’s Bob Lutz: the batteries necessary to make the Volt work aren’t a commercial reality yet. That same caveat out of Toyota would be readily accepted. From GM, though, many skeptics are left wondering whether it’s just another excuse.

So I was curious to see what the company would have to say at a Monday morning battery briefing at the GM Technical Center, in Warren, Mich. An assortment of General Motors officials were joined by counterparts from the supplier community, including Mary Ann Wright, former head of the hybrid program at Ford and now the CEO of Johnson Controls-Saft. JCS is a joint venture of the U.S. supplier and the French battery maker and it’s pushing hard to commercialize lithium-ion technology, which seems to be the breakthrough everyone needs.

“It’s not a revolution, but an evolutionary challenge” facing GM and its competitors, insists Joe LoGrasso, the battery boss at the Tech Center. But there are some real hurdles; just consider all those exploding lithium-ion laptop computer batteries that have been making the headlines lately. Would you like one of them powering your $35,000 SUV?

But is GM setting the benchmark TOO high? The automaker says it won’t buy in on lithium technology unless and until battery makers, like JCS, can ensure safe and reliable technology – that can also last the life of the car, meaning at least 100,000 miles without replacement. Can you imagine your clutch or perhaps even a transmission going that long without repair or replacement? Is GM setting a target that it knows can’t be met? And will competitors like Toyota accept a lower standard to beat the U.S. maker to market? That would be the worst of all worlds and yet another devastating blow to the domestic giant’s credibility. General Motors desperately needs to take a solid leadership role in the green car movement – and simply fielding concept cars, even those as promising as the Volt, won’t cut it.

Wrapping up the session, GM officials suggested they might have the necessary lithium-ion technology ready for prime time by 2010. They may not have that much time.

Chevrolet Volt concept TheCarConnection.com

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