GM Launches Next-Gen Hybrid System

March 4, 2008
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In the fast-moving world of green technology, General Motors has been a bit of an also-ran. Until recently, the automaker was, to put it mildly, skeptical about not only the threat of global warming, but of potential demand for high-mileage, low-emissions technologies like hybrid-electric powertrains.

While there are those in GM’s senior ranks – notably including Vice Chairman Bob Lutz – who continue to question concerns about climate change, there seems little doubt that the U.S. automaker is now fully committed to going green. And GM seems not only intent on going green, but it is pushing hard to leapfrog the segments leaders, Honda and Toyota, with breakthrough products like the plug-in hybrid Volt, which is due to market sometime in 2009.

Arch-rival Toyota also hopes to go the plug-in route, with a version of its popular Prius sedan, due out in 2010. It will share the same basic technologies as Prius, adding a larger lithium-ion battery pack and the ability to charge up off the electric grid. And that marks a distinctive difference between GM and its competitors.

Instead of going with what is basically a one-size-fits-all hybrid system, the U.S. giant is developing a range of gasoline-electric technologies, explains chief engineer Steve Poulos. Volt’s plug-in system is one, the new two-mode hybrid, developed in partnership with Daimler, Chrysler and BMW, is another. It’s an expensive and complicated system that can boost in-town mileage on big SUVs, like the Cadillac Escalade, by up to 50 percent.

Cost is a big obstacle to wider hybrid acceptance, GM has determined. So for those watching their budget but still hoping for a more environmental-friendly alternative to gasoline power, the automaker offers a basic, or mild, hybrid system that trades off features for affordability. Found on models such as the Saturn Vue Green Line, it is among the lowest-priced hybrid options on the market.

Come 2010, GM plans to launch what it’s calling the Next-Generation Hybrid System. The technology, which is being unveiled at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show, this week, is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, update, yet the changes GM is making are nonetheless quite significant.

For one thing, the automaker is abandoning the road-tested Nickel-Metal Hydride battery for newer and still controversial Lithium-Ion chemistry. Though wildly popular in consumer electronics – such as the laptop computer used to type this article – there’ve been a variety of problems with lithium batteries, including longevity and fires. But Poulos believes GM should have things well under control before the Next-Gen system reaches market, about two years from now.

LIon batteries can store significantly more power in a much smaller package than NiMH cells. As a result, the NextGen system’s battery pack is about 24 percent smaller, yet produces 33 percent more power. To put size into perspective, the entire battery package, explains Pooulos, is “about the size of a 12-pack of Coke.”

Meanwhile, the second-generation hybrid utilizes an entirely new motor system that can punch out a lot more torque. That translates into better acceleration and “a lot more fun-to-drive feeling,” asserts Poulos. The extra power would potentially allow GM to downsize. For example, it might swap out a medium-sized V-6 for a smaller, turbo I-4 engine. Electric power provides plenty of low-end torque, complimenting the higher-end boost of the turbo.

Yet, bottom line, the entire hybrid system will also be a bit more efficient than Gen-1, yielding a fairly consistent 15 to 20 percent improvement in fuel economy, GM projects.

Considering the likelihood that gasoline prices reach $4 a gallon by 2010, that would be significant. A conventionally-powered SUV, like Vue, yielding 20 mpg, would suck down 750 gallons a year driving a typical 15,000 miles. That would add up to $3,000 in fuel bills. A similar, hybrid Vue, at 24 mpg, would drink 625 gallons, worth $2500. Even without state or local tax credits, it would take only three to four years to pay off the technology, never mind the potential environmental benefits.

For the moment, GM officials aren’t offering many specifics about the Next-Gen system; they aren’t revealing the specifics of their LIon chemistry, which is a clear competitive advantage, nor even details of the hybrid system’s new motors.

What products will the hybrid be offered on? Keep guessing, though you’re safe to expect it on the same models already using GM’s first mild hybrid hardware, including Vue and the Chevrolet Malibu. But Poulos did acknowledge that the NextGen hybrid will be “plug-and-play” with all manner of GM powertrains, including those used in front, rear and all-wheel-drive vehicle configurations.

The new technology, meanwhile, is likely to show up first in North America, where demanding new federal mileage standards are looming. But the fact that GM is unveiling the NextGen in Geneva strongly suggests the automaker has global aspirations for the technology, and probably for the very near future.

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