Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
March 20th, 2007

The Quest for the Perfect Battery – Chapter 2

In my last post I wrote about GM and the presentation it made to some of us in the media about the new battery technology they are developing along with several other companies.  At the end of that post I highlighted the two distinct lines of challenging questions that have come up in response. 

I will quickly restate these two before moving on to address them.  The first challenge to GM about their commitment to creating a new battery technology for vehicles is to directly question how serious the GM commitment is.  How can the people who were identified as launching and then ‘killing’ the electric EV-1 be taken seriously?  The second challenge is to the commitment of GM to not come out with a true electric car until there is the ‘perfect’ battery technology to do so.  In other words, since it will take several years to perfect the lithium ion battery to meet all the necessary criteria for use, why not just come out with vehicles that use the current nickel-metal hydride technology so that ‘green’ cars can be put on the road much sooner.

To restate simply:  Are you guys for real, and why wait for perfect when good is available? 

Is GM for real?  All evidence points to a truly serious, committed company that has set as one of its core missions to reinvent the actual DNA of the automobile.  First, GM is being extremely open to the press, bloggers and the world at large about what they are doing, with whom they are doing it, what their goals are, and what the problems are in reaching those goals.  This is not one of those secret skunk works that companies set up to develop product ‘X’.  The announcement of the Chevrolet Volt in January was accompanied by announcements that GM had selected three companies to work with them on the quest for the perfect battery.  These companies, A123, Cobasys, and a joint venture of Johnson Controls and Saft have joined in the process. My research has showed me that these companies are good choices and further more have been clearly placed in the spotlight. [We have chosen you, we are making it public, failure will be very public, so don’t fail]. During the briefing last week, GM executives went first, and then a senior executive of each company made a presentation and then was subjected to any and all questions from the assembled group of media representatives.  I personally found conversations with Scott Lindholm from Cobasys and Ed Bednarcik of A123 to be very honest, informative and exciting.  Not once did I feel I was getting fed a line or that I was being ‘spinned’.  

The thrust of the entire exercise last week was a stated openness.  GM is going to let us know every step of the way what is going on, who is responsible for what, and that the process is open and as relatively transparent as a huge corporation can operate.  They are basically saying  we don’t yet have the solution, here is what we are going to do and as things develop, we will share that progress.  Perhaps other major auto companies are going that, but I am not aware of them at this date.  Dueling press releases are nothing more than that.  Openness about the process is to be applauded. [In an odd flashback, I thought of the space race in the 1950s and 60s when the USSR was extremely secretive about their space program, only letting the world know of successes, while the American program was completely open and we saw failed missile launch after missile launch.  Who got to the moon?]

The only ones I know who doubt GM and its intentions are hard core environmentalists who have developed good reason to doubt green claims from big business.  The answers to them and every one are clear and business obvious.  First there is a very strong demand for green cars and GM is in the business of selling into demand, selling people what they want.  [We can all knock the car companies for producing tens of millions of SUVs, but they did so because we bought them and demanded more.  It is not a car company’s fault that you bought a gas guzzler, so don’t blame them. If all of you hadn’t bought them, they would not have been produced]. Second, almost all vehicles being produced are powered by petroleum and petroleum is a declining resource.  Whether the world runs out of petroleum in 30 years or 60 years, run out we will, so why would any company want to have long term plans to produce transportation vehicles that can’t transport? 

The second question about why not come out with a short term fix vehicle that will satisfy the clear and strong demand for a low emission, electric car is a slightly more complex one.  I had come into the briefings with that exact point of view.  From a marketing point of view in this ever more green marketplace, why not give the people what they want and score major marketing points in the process?  Why wait when something can be done now.  The simple answer from GM is that anything that does not meet the demanding criteria of the buying public, green or otherwise, is not worth doing as it will be ultimately doomed to failure or an be an extremely contained success at best.  Remember, the name of the car is the Chevrolet Volt.  They are putting their number one brand name on it.  The brand name for Middle America.  They have taken a stand with their core brand, not some techno brand that is at arms length to the company.

This was again brought home by an intimate breakfast that we four bloggers  [For those of you wanting a more detailed analysis, environmental analysis of GM’s E-Flex technology, please read Ed Ring’s post] had with Larry Burns, the VP of Technology and Development and Strategic Planning of GM.  I had described Larry as “A Man Who Wants to Change the World” and I believe he does.  At the very least it is almost his job description.  He gave the four of us an updated presentation from the one he personally gave me that I discussed in the post about him.

First I must say that it was at first disorienting and then an exhilarating experience.  The briefing took place in a board room at the R&D center of GM, a big sprawling complex that since I love modern, mid-century architecture I found extremely beautiful.  So here we were, sitting in the heart of GM being told by a top executive that “the time for energy diversity is now”, that “98% of energy used to power cars is from petroleum”, that with current developments ‘a new DNA of the automobile is emerging” and this new DNA will exchange” the internal combustion engine with electric propulsion”,  â€œpetroleum for electricity and hydrogen” and mechanical systems for electric and electronic systems”  Larry, in most emphatic terms said that it is now time “to reinvent the automobile”.  That is what he sees as his job.  His passion, knowledge and commitment is real.  And folks, he is the guy leading the way at GM.  And he is telling anyone who will listen that this is his job.  His presentation by the way is one of the most cohesive, global and informative presentations I have ever seen on what is going on in the world, what the automotive industry is doing within this context, and of course all the specifics as to what GM has, is and will be doing. 

When I asked him why the company was not putting out stop gap, short term solutions in the form of cars that used current technology his answer was powerful in its simplicity.  He said “Why? It wouldn’t really solve the problem.  The only solution is to sell massive amounts of vehicles for there to be any impact and the only way to do so is to find a battery technology that can be produced cheaply enough to be affordable to millions, that is safe and reliable and can perform at levels as good as and probably better than the internal combustion options currently available to people”  OK, right answer.

I expect subsequent chapters in this Quest for the Perfect Battery series as I think it one of the most important R&D efforts currently going on in the world.  Thanks to GM, I have so far had a front row seat, and hope to comment and report from that vantage point.

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