GM’s Plan to Reinvent the Automobile: R.I.P. Combustion Engine

September 17 2008 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future
Category: Energy   Year: 2011   Rating: 12 Hot

General Motors is not afraid of the future. And it is not afraid to let go of the past.

On Tuesday the company released details of its production version of ‘Volt’ – the industry’s first Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV) that will go into production in 2010.

And this is only the beginning.

GM’s plan to reinvent the auto industry starts with killing the combustion engine.

We believe the company has three strategies for the future:

#1 The Real Revolution is about Manufacturing

GM knows that in the next automobile revolution – it is not how you fuel a car that matters, it’s how you build it.

GM cares less about the price of oil, than it cares about the cost and complexities of building cars around the mechanical combustion engine. The Volt is important because the combustion engine is relegated to a new temporary task – recharge the batteries. The 21st century auto industry begins when we shift to modularity of electric motors (e.g. lower manufacturing costs, fewer factories).

#2 Design Matters

GM knows that design matters, and the bulky, mechanical combustion engine holds them back. If you eliminate the engine and regain 1/3rd of the vehicle chassis you can rethink how cars are built. Transition to ‘drive by wire’ systems for steering and braking – and you open up new potential for vehicle designs and upgrades.

#3 The breakthrough is Electric motors, not the batteries

GM knows auto-engineering. High performance electric motors have arrived. Now we need to develop systems to deliver the streams of electrons. The future of the automobile is not ‘all’ battery or ‘all’ fuel cell – it’s both.

The electric car is not an iPod. The battery is not our end game. It is merely one piece of the puzzle for electric propulsion. Batteries might have a short-term commercialization advantage, but the platform might struggle to evolve into the 21st century. The chemistry is bad. The costs are too high, and the performance is adequate at best. Future electric propulsion systems will integrate all three systems – batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.

Looking beyond the Chevy Volt

The GM Volt is big – because it is the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine. R.I.P.

GM’s real revolutionary vision is not the Chevy Volt, but its AUTOnomy concept.

That vision starts with simple idea– skateboard kills car.

Then the industry uses the principles of modular design and manufacturing to change the cost structure of how cars are built, bought, sold and upgraded.

Read on…

On Tuesday GM released images of its production demonstration of Volt – an extended range electric vehicle designed to go 40 miles before a small combustion engine motor kicks in to recharge the battery.

The expectation is that most commuters travel less than 30 miles to work so the electric motor should suffice. So those able to ‘plug in’ at home can significantly reduce trips to the gas station.

The lithium-ion battery packs are recharged by plugging the car into a standard wall outlet. A full-charge cycle is reported to take 6 hours. And gasoline fed to the combustion engine is used to recharge the battery, not power the motors. By using the combustion engine to recharge the battery the car is reported to have a range of 400 miles.

But this is only part of the story. GM’s real strategy is to perfect the electric power train- and accelerate its electron storage systems. To get further along GM will have to continue reinventing the car.

#1 – Electron Storage Solutions

Electric cars are very complicated machines- and they will require a combination of electron power systems including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. This is not Lord of the Rings. Not one device ‘to rule them all’. Batteries are not the end game.

The future of electric cars rests on tapping the cost and performance advantages of all systems working together.

The good news is that advanced lithium ion batteries appear to have enough juice within them to support the first generation of electric vehicles.

The bad news is that it only confuses the general public and distracts us from accelerating the only form of electron power that can match the cost and performance of gasoline combustion engines. Hydrogen, the ugly step-sister of cleantech, might have been over-hyped during the Dotcom Boom, but it is a potent source of energy that cannot be ignored. Appliance based H2 production and solid state H2 storage systems are evolving. And fuel cell membrane costs are dropping quickly. Stay tuned.

Podcast on GM’s battery technology

#2 Wheel based Electric motors – lower cost

GM knows that the secret to 21st century success is shedding the 20th century manufacturing system. It needs to shut down factories and produce multiple chassis on the same factory floor. It needs a modular powertrain system and it can get there with electric motors.

While it might be years away, GM’s real game changing vehicle is AUTOnomy (below). An 11-inch thick skateboard chassis with four wheel based motors and self contained power systems. That can change the cost structure of how we build, buy and upgrade cars.

#3 Drive by Wire

The road to reinventing the auto industry intersects with the electronics industry. If you want to simplify your supply chain, reduce vehicle weight, improve performance and redefine the driving experience— you switch to ‘drive by wire’ systems for steering and braking. Beyond reducing costs on the factory floor, you can tap the power of software to customize the driving experience. When Dad gets in the car the performance feels like a sports coupe. Mom prefers the feel of a smooth luxury sedan. Simply change the programming and it feels like you are driving a different car.

GM has certainly changed the game by committing to a production version automobile platform that diminishes the role of the combustion engine. And they have plenty of room to continue innovating!

We are anxious to see GM’s Volt hit the marketplace. Eager to see the death of the combustion engine.

But if you want a sneak peak at the future – think about how we can change how cars are built….

Welcome to AUTOnomy

Our forecast on the future of transportation – skateboard kills car.

Comment Thread (7 Responses)

  1. Jesus Christ! Here’s a company that has screwed over the environment, continues to screw over the environment, and has been caught with it’s pants down with rising gas prices, and they expect to be the leaders of a new movement? Some might say better late than never, but I refuse to buy any GM products ever again. Those guys are the anti-christ.

    Posted by: martymcfly   September 17, 2008
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  2. These guys are the anti-Christ!

    LOL! You really need to get out more often and lay off the crack pipe!

    You sound like some kind of rabid eco-zealot that sat in front of the TV too much watching Captian Planet as a kid, never grew up and doesn’t have a clue about reality.

    Posted by: DanYull   September 17, 2008
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  3. What’s so “profound” or even interesting about AUTOnomy? So they want to place all the propulsion parts (parts they don’t have yet) inside the chassis… I don’t see how location of the fuel cell is more exciting than location of spare tire, for example.

    Posted by: johnfrink   September 17, 2008
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  4. Re: johnfrink

    sorry for not being more clear. The skateboard chassis is profound for many reasons- but #1 is cost.

    Instead of having four factories (V4, V6, V8, hybrid) located in four separate towns—you have one factory floor that produces multiple chassis. Just switch out higher powered wheel based motors- and instant switch. Cost is profound. Fewer factories operating at higher capacity is important. Fewer factory workers (and pensions) is important. Fewer moving parts and suppliers feeding the system, et al. Exiting the mechanical engine and moving towards modular pieces that plug into a skateboard chassis lowers manufacturing costs.

    Then there is a a design factor- you simply sell more cars when you can have better interiors not dominated by mechanical systems- like engine and steering column.

    And it changes the biz model of selling cars. RIght now GM, Toyota, et al build cars before they sell them. So the new car sits on a lot—each day depreciating in value. Asset depreciation is very profound.

    The skateboard chassis allows us to have one platform and buy multiple ‘tops’ – so local car dealers might let us trade out sports top for SUV top, et al.

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 18, 2008
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  5. The logic makes perfect sense GG. Thanks for the refreshing perspective.

    Posted by: FutureFly   September 18, 2008
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  6. I love to see a company turn a new leaf. There is nothing wrong with having their financial needs fit the needs of the environment. The market is prime for this kind of move. Yah for GM.

    As for this skateboard thing, I love the idea. It makes sense, it allows “users” to customize their vehicle with clarity, simplicity and velocity. Nike did it and it worked well.

    There isn’t one way this field is going to develop. There will be many ways and some will include private communities who begin to master the automotive technologies. I have it that the future will display very particular styles of vehicles, that use specific energy resources in very particular environments. What I mean is, the city will have a common style vehicle that is sourced by solar or whatever, and then out in the country, it will look a certain way, being sourced by something else.

    If this model becomes a reality, we may even see a commonly shared ownership of vehicles within a vicinity. Sort of a membership model for energy and transportation.

    Posted by: Peltaire   September 22, 2008
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  7. No one is more upset about GM’s past sins than I am, but this is a design marvel and a great idea. Versatility is the hallmark of good, modern invention and this design has it.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   September 23, 2008
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