General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra has frequently declared that the automaker is “on a path to an all-electric future,” and officials for automaker today provided a rare deep dive into its electrification program, covering everything from the new battery technology it is developing to the products it plans to use them in.
All told, Barra confirmed that GM is on track to launch 20 all-electric vehicles by 2023, “and more beyond that.”
Some vehicles will target specific markets. Two Buick prototypes shown Wednesday morning at GM’s suburban Detroit design center will primarily target China, where it is considered a major brand. But all the new EVs, said President Mark Reuss, could eventually wind up being sold worldwide.
Underpinning the product program, GM has developed both the “flexible global platform” that will be used to underpin products like the Cadillac SUV set to debut April 2, and the GMC Hummer pickup that will follow in May. Meanwhile, it revealed the new “Ultium” batteries that will provide power to those vehicles and, critically, send the cost of those cells plunging to a point where EVs can become cost-competitive with vehicles using internal combustion engines.
“What we have done is build a multi-brand, multi-segment EV strategy with economies of scale that rival our full-size truck business with much less complexity and even more flexibility,” said Barra, ahead of the Wednesday announcement.
Unlike conventional vehicles using internal combustion engines, most manufacturers are migrating to skateboard-like platforms where motors, batteries and other key components are mounted below the load floor. Ironically, the concept was invented by GM, but only recently put to use in a production model with the launch of the Chevrolet Bolt EV for the 2017 model year.
Going forward, GM will use an even more advanced modular platform offering significant flexibility, the automaker confirmed. Among other things, it will allow changes in length, width, height and ground clearance – even what is known as the dash-to-axle ratio, which normally is rigidly fixed – while also permitting the use of significantly different sizes and shapes of battery packs.
In line with that approach, the new Ultium batteries will be pouch shaped, rather than the more traditional, cylindrical form adopted by manufacturers such as Tesla. In turn, they will be flexible in the way they can be laid out, being stacked either horizontal or vertically. The result can impact the shape of a battery pack, as well as the amount of power it can provide.
GM claims it will be able to produce packs of anywhere from 50 to 200 kilowatt-hours — the latter being nearly twice as large as any battery pack currently on the market. In turn, the automaker announced that this “could enable a GM-estimated range up to 400 miles or more on a full charge with 0 to 60 mph acceleration as low as 3 seconds.”
GM will produce its own motors but they will be arranged in a variety of different configurations. On the Hummer SUT, or sport-utility truck, there will be two on the rear axle, another up front, producing a combined 1,000 horsepower, executives revealed at the background event.
As with the EV platforms being developed by competitors such as Volkswagen, Ford and BMW, the new GM architecture will allow it to position electric motors on the front or rear axles of a vehicle, or both to create what has come to be known as “through-the-road all-wheel-drive,” since there is no driveshaft connecting the front and rear axles.
The new Ultium batteries are the product of a joint venture between GM and South Korea’s LG Chem, the latter company already providing the automaker with batteries for the Chevy Bolt and other vehicles. The two recently announced plans to set up a major battery manufacturing facility near Lordstown, Ohio.
As one of the key elements of any electrified vehicle, battery technology is critical, and fast evolving. Because of the number of batteries that go into a typical EV, even slight improvements can offer a major competitive advantage. That’s particularly true when it comes to price.
When GM launched its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid a decade ago, lithium-ion batteries ran about $1,000 per kilowatt hour. That dropped to around $145 per kWh for the Bolt EV, GM President Mark Reuss said at the time of its launch. GM now says it expects to produce the Ultium batteries for “below $100 per kWh.”
During Wednesday’s briefing, battery engineering manager Andy Awrey suggested that GM hopes to go substantially below that number, in fact, partially by eliminating costly components, partially through new manufacturing methods.
The new Ultium batteries employ a formula reducing the use of cobalt by 70% and is working to eliminate it entirely. That metal has traditionally been a key part of battery chemistry. But it causes a variety of problems, adds cost and there are concerns that supplies of the metal could run short as production of battery-electric vehicles increase in the coming years.
Tesla recently began negotiating a deal with Chinese battery supplier CATL for cobalt-free batteries it wants to use in its Model 3 sedans produced at the Gigafactory near Shanghai.
Cost is only one of the targets for GM’s battery team. Awrey said they already are working up a new approach that could double the energy density of a battery — the amount of power that can be stored in an individual cell. That could allow GM to deliver vehicles with range of 600 miles or more without using a larger pack. Alternatively, it could reduce the number of cells, further cutting costs, as well as the size of its battery packs.
GM says that while it is investing billions in developing its new battery-electric cars, the ultimate payoff could be substantial. For one thing, it claims it will significantly reduce the complexity of its manufacturing operations. It initially plans 19 battery and electric drivetrain configurations compared to the 550 internal combustion combinations in use at its global network today.
Key to all this is customer acceptance. Battery-based vehicles of all forms generated barely 5% of U.S. new vehicle sales in 2019, with BEVs accounting for little more than 1%. Global sales are running at similar levels. But GM officials cited “third-party forecasters” in predicting that sales of pure electric models will double from 2025 to 2030, to around 3 million annually.
In fact, some forecasts, including one recently by the Boston Consulting Group, estimate that the numbers could run even higher as manufacturers address key challenges such as range, cost, the availability of public charging stations and the speed of charging.
Reuss recently told TheDetroitBureau.com that GM sees the first three challenges quickly being addressed. As for charging speeds, the automaker believes that it will eventually be able to charge its new Ultium batteries in as little as 10 minutes, rivalling the time it takes to fill up an empty gas tank.
All told, GM CEO Barra and President Reuss declared their confidence that GM’s next-generation battery car program will be profitable within its first generation of products, a big shift from the ‘s current reality that sees virtually all manufacturer losing money – often by substantial amounts – on their EV programs.
Wall Street has been rewarding Tesla, the company investors see as the real cutting edge of the nascent EV industry. For their part, both Barra and Reuss admitted frustration that they haven’t been able to get investors to buy in on GM’s own efforts. That could change — or so they hope. Following the background briefing for the media, Wall Street analysts will get their own session and an opportunity to decide whether GM really is plugging into the future.