DETROIT – With the U.S. regulatory future in flux and technological development moving at a breakneck pace, General Motors Corp. is taking into account all possibilities for vehicle propulsion.

“Nothing is off the table,” Tom Stephens, group vice president-GM Powertrain and Quality, says during the North American International Auto Show here.

“We need to take advantage of all our technology to satisfy (emissions and fuel economy) regulations to the benefit of our customers.”

GM shares many of the same challenges as the rest of the industry, with Stephens citing improving engine/vehicle efficiency, displacing the use of petroleum through biofuels and electric vehicles and reducing carbon dioxide emissions as key elements of the auto maker’s future powertrain strategy.

“It is an extremely difficult time right now,” he says. “We are moving as fast as we can move.”

Gasoline direct-injection technology will play a prominent role in improving the auto maker’s powertrains, Stephens says, noting GM expects to produce approximately 200,000 GDI engines globally this year and has more applications coming.

Dual-clutch transmissions, which rapidly are being embraced by the world’s auto makers for their smoothness and efficiency, also are a solid technology that GM plans to watch closely.

However, the auto maker’s recent push into conventional 6-speed automatics and the rollout of nine new units in the last four years exemplifies its current focus.

DCT gearboxes hold a slight advantage over automatic transmissions in performance applications, Stephens says, but their greater cost is hard to justify in mainstream vehicles.

Intelligent-shift algorithms, such as those used by Cadillac, further narrows the performance advantage of DCTs, he adds.

As for introducing new powertrain technologies, the emerging markets of China, India and Russia may prove invaluable in leveraging GM’s global portfolio.

China, for example, may be an ideal outlet for electric-vehicle sales and research due to the country’s abundance of coal-fired and nuclear powerplants that could support the recharging of a vast EV fleet.

In addition, EVs could help quell pollution in cities such as Beijing, where increasing congestion causes many vehicles to sit idling for long periods of time, spewing harmful emissions.

Although GM has several joint ventures in China, Stephens is unfazed by concerns of Chinese auto makers becoming savvy to technologies developed with foreign partners.

“The only competitive advantage (in this industry) is how much faster you can learn than the other guy,” he says. “We are moving forward and won’t worry too much about older technology (in those markets).”

But what does concern him is the U.S.’s vulnerable domestic fuel supply, reminding that natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina easily can cripple the nation’s insufficient refining capacity.

In an effort to reduce its reliance on petroleum, GM recently partnered with Chicago-based Coskata Inc. to develop cellulosic ethanol made from biomass, a collaboration that will help in the proliferation of flex-fuel vehicles that can run on E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline).

Stephens equates the current difficulties to an epic journey or exploration, adding it is time for all players to reevaluate the automotive market.

“As an engineer and developer, it’s a great time to be in the industry,” he says.

msutton@wardsauto.com