Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – As Frank Weber, vehicle line executive for General Motors Corp.’s E-Flex electric-car program, ate breakfast one morning before the Management Briefing Seminars here, a waitress asked what brought him to town.

“My communications people said, ‘This is Frank. He is responsible for the E-Flex. He is responsible for making (GM’s) electric-vehicle program happen,’” Weber recalls during a presentation at the Management Briefing Seminars here.

“And she said, ‘I want the vehicle immediately. I don’t want to go to the gas station anymore. When will it be ready, and when can I buy it?’”

It would seem surprising that anyone inside this sleepy northern Michigan resort town might know Weber’s vehicle program, but the 41-year-old German engineer appointed to usher the global vehicle from the stage to the showroom says he gets that sort of reaction wherever he goes.

“That is one example of many that we are on the right track here,” Weber says.

It also illustrates the urgency under which Weber’s team operates. Record gasoline prices have consumers clamoring for alternative powertrains, but larger issues also exist.

For instance, the world today is 98%-dependent on petroleum and has about 800 million vehicles on the road. But by 2020, that count will rise to 1.1 billion.

“This for us is a clear indicator that the current path of petroleum dependence has to be changed, and we must take action,” Weber says.

That’s also why GM has stopped wringing its hands over whether the infrastructure necessary to support advanced powertrains will be ready when the Volt arrives as expected in 2010.

“We have to diversify energy sources, and we have to reduce emissions,” he says. “And I have to also say there is a private interest: I have three young children, and this is a motivation for me every day. It drives my efforts.”

To speed the program along, GM has dedicated about 200 engineers to E-Flex, which comes on top of the 400 fuel-cell engineers it recently moved from research and development to production engineering on alternative powertrain and vehicle programs.

GM officials say in addition to the 1.0L, 3-cyl. turbocharged engine that supports the Volt’s electrical power, the E-Flex architecture can be rolled out on a number of vehicle platforms capable of running on various fuel/power sources, including hydrogen.

“This is an important step because the fuel cell (program) already had the electric propulsion in it,” Weber says. “Many of the issues you see with electric propulsion, the fuel-cell team has already been faced with and we now have that expertise.”

GM reinforced its team further by adding to its roster of battery researchers A123Systems Inc., experts in nanophosphate lithium-ion battery cell technology.

And while a vehicle that gets the equivalent of 150 mpg (1.56 L/100 km) and emits zero emissions in pure plug-in form has drawn consumer interest, in the showroom an electric vehicle like the Volt is bound to generate more buzz.

So GM recently opened a design studio on its research campus outside of Detroit that focuses exclusively on Volt and the E-Flex architecture.

“Having an advanced propulsion system is nice, but people want sexy vehicles,” Weber says.

They also want convenience, so at this year’s Frankfurt auto show in September GM will unveil another E-Flex variant, as well as a new body style for the architecture. The variant includes a level of connectivity, such as infotainment, not found on the Volt shown in Detroit and Shanghai earlier this year. GM declines to provide further details.

“One way to help the customer understand this vehicle is to advance its character,” Weber says.

Unfortunately for the Traverse City waitress, a pure plug-in Volt remains more than a few years into the future. GM wants to begin selling some variation of the car, most likely one that combines the 1.0L internal combustion engine with plug-in electric power, by the end of 2010.

But even then, gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles still will dominate the world’s roadways. Last year, auto makers sold 360,000 hybrids globally, or less than 1% of all vehicles delivered, Weber observes.

GM can rest easier knowing it has created the spark of interest among consumers it will need until it can deliver a full-fledged plug-in electric car.

“The product, itself, will create excitement for the customer,” Weber says. “We will have something that is different, that challenges the industry and provides a true alternative that in a larger context is major, major step forward.”

jamend@wardsauto.com