Green innovations

  • 27-May-2010 07:00 EDT

In May, we learned that more than half of the 1300 patents filed by General Motors Co. in 2009 were considered green innovations. In a study of patent activity of the top-15 global automakers released by the intellectual-property firm Ocean Tomo LLC (, GM was hailed for maintaining a leadership position in the development of green technologies.

“The move toward electrification is requiring us to reinvent the DNA of the automobile, requiring massive amounts of innovation,” said Alan Taub, Vice President of GM Global Research and Development. “As a result, our green patent portfolio is helping us achieve world-class technological breakthroughs in the energy and environmental space.”

Said James Malackowski, Chairman and CEO of Ocean Tomo, “GM has higher average quality and newer green technology and patents than the other 14 automakers combined.”

Among the most notable is a new catalyst material, perovskite. It has a much lower cost than, but performance similar to that of, traditionally used platinum, a precious metal subject to volatile price fluctuations. Another breakthrough is a new device that uses shape-memory alloys to convert waste heat from a vehicle’s engine into electricity to power auxiliary equipment.

Often you can read first details of these and other green technologies on the print and Web pages of AEI, but in the June 1 issue of AEI in print we focus on the higher-level views of top executives on the state of these technologies and related vehicle developments. Though some efforts are being directed at the most advanced alternatives, many near-term developments will rely on incremental gains in “conventional” green technologies.

One method is through lightweighting to reduce vehicle consumption. As Bob Lutz, just-retired GM Vice Chairman, says in this issue, one of the next challenges for his successors is to whittle away at the vehicle curb weight.

“As we went for product excellence, reducing mass was our lowest priority,” he said. The company aims to drop its average vehicle curb weights as much as two inertia weight classes.

As ever, Lutz is aware of the changing benchmarks. “Look at the Hyundai Sonata, for example. That thing is a very nice car and is massively lighter than a Malibu.”

Our interview with Barb Samardzich, Ford Motor Co.’s Vice President of Powertrain Engineering, confirms the importance of engineering for lighter mass. The company engineered weight out of its powertrains for 2011, with an eye toward further mass reductions in the future.

The industry will continue its major focus on conventional green technologies, but no one can ignore the longer-term vehicle-electrification challenge. In our feature on Chrysler Engineering VP Scott Kunselman, he talks about taking the lead in vehicle electrification for the Fiat-Chrysler partnership.

Kunselman said Chrysler’s current strategy “is to make sure we’re at the forefront of everything—from all varieties of hybrids, E-REVs [extended-range electric vehicles], plug-ins, and battery electrics. So when the market for these vehicles falls in line with economics, we’re ready to go.”

In the build-up, Chrysler has run ads on Internet job-notice sites seeking engineers and specialists in the area of high-voltage systems for powertrain electrification programs. “This is a core position responsible for HEV, PHEV, and EV programs,” the ads state.

The need for green innovations, at Chrysler and elsewhere, presents an opportunity for engineers with the new skills or those willing to learn and adapt to the new realities, so brush up on your technical skills and be prepared for an exciting time in automotive engineering.

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