General Motors is making energy conservation a key part of its strategic focus, with a number of programs designed to cut fuel consumption in all parts of the globe. Though Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is confident that GM can gain a lead position in the new focus on green vehicles, he’s not shy about criticizing government regulations that are helping drive the transition.
Speaking at a recent seminar on fuel-efficient vehicles, Lutz said politicians who passed 35-mpg CAFE standards have misled the public, leading them to believe that this huge leap in fuel economy won’t add to the cost of their cars. “The dishonest part is that the American public has been promised a free lunch,” Lutz said.
Extending mileage levels that have already risen substantially will be anything but free. “The technology needed to get today’s cars up to 35 mpg won’t come cheaply; it will add thousands of dollars per car,” Lutz said. That could run as high as $6000 to $7000, he said, which will have a significant impact on sales, particularly on fleet renewals. Lutz predicted that companies will keep vehicles another year or two rather than buy cars with that
Lutz also predicted that a range of fuel alternatives will be necessary to address needs from small commuter vehicles to large SUVs and trucks that can pull heavy loads. “We will offer as many fuel choices as necessary,” Lutz said.
The company has created five icons to designate each vehicle’s power-source focus: E85, hybrids, fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, and fuel cells.
Within GM’s portfolio of fuel efficiency, “Chevrolet is going to be the poster child.” That’s because it’s a global brand and energy is a global issue, he explained.
In the short term, electric power is the leading technique for reducing petroleum usage.
“The biggest way to get huge gains in reducing petroleum consumption is through electrification,” Lutz said. He said GM will be very public in the development of its plug-in electric vehicle, comparing it to the early days of NASA’s space programs. The public will see successes and stumbles, he said.
These steps will begin soon. “In the first quarter, we’ll have driving models of the Volt so we can see if it meets the goal of 40 miles using no fuel,” Lutz said.
Hybrids are the prevalent electric technology. GM continues to roll out more hybrid models, offering a range from compacts to large SUVs and pickups. Engineers continue to come up with new techniques that make hybrids more efficient.
“There are nine new modules in the Tahoe,” said Scott Miler, GM’s Lead Development Engineer for hybrid trucks. One helps manage a real-time fuel economy optimizer that switches to the best way to optimize engine and battery operations, making calculations 50 times per second.
The electronic modules also control the 288 nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack and a pair of 60-kW motors. Together, they help the Tahoe hybrid provide a 50% improvement in city mileage, matching the 21 mpg for a far-smaller Toyota Camry.
Electrification is getting loads of attention, but most observers predict that the internal-combustion engine will remain the mainstay of the industry for decades. However, the focus seems likely to shift from time-tested techniques.
“2008 will be the last gasp of the high-powered gasoline engine,” Lutz said. GM will introduce a Corvette with more horsepower than anything else on the road, but after that, horsepower will be a key focus only on occasion. Instead, powertrain development will be more focused on fuel economy, Lutz explained.
Gasoline engines won’t use conventional technology, but will instead leverage technologies developed for diesels, such as high compression and direct injection. “GM and Mercedes are at the forefront of getting gasoline engines to run like diesels, saving fuel without adding the cost of diesels,” Lutz said.
GM remains also committed to ethanol, with more than two million E85 vehicles on the road today, he added.
Regardless of the engine used, most GM vehicles will see a shift in transmissions over the next few years. Most GM automatic transmissions now have six speeds, but that will change. “Transmissions with more speeds are coming, but cars won’t become like bicycles. I don’t expect to see a 10-speed transmission in a car,” Lutz said.
Looking longer term, GM is also pressing forward with hydrogen fuels that emit only water. The Equinox SUV is currently the test vehicle for this research.
In what’s called Project Driveway, GM is putting a fleet of more than 100 fuel-cell vehicles into the hands of consumers and celebrities who live in coastal areas near fueling stations. Early test drivers said the engine delivers good driving characteristics.
GM stores hydrogen under pressure, currently at around 10,000 psi (690 bar). To fit more into tanks, pressure will be increased in the future. GM's pressurized gas is different from gas produced by the technique used by BMW, which stores liquid hydrogen cooled to very low temperatures.
Though R&D spending for fuel conservation is high, Lutz noted that there isn’t an alternative.
“The only other solution is to downsize everything. The people who like to pull horse trailers will have to go to miniature horses,” he quipped.