General Motors Invests Heavily In Battery Technology

Micky Bly explains why battery technology is so important to the future of hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles.

Full Transcript

Ben Lack: I’m here with Micky Bly, Executive Director of Electric Systems and Vehicle Electrification for General Motors. Micky, thanks so much for your time.

Micky Bly: My pleasure.

Ben Lack: Would you mind giving us a little bit of a background for what some of your responsibilities are over at GM?

Micky Bly: Well, Ben, over the last year, I’ve taken over the responsibility for General Motors’s Electrification and also Electrical Systems activity, and that’s kind of a mouthful. But you kind of think of it a high-level, with any vehicle, you’ve got a lot of different systems on board. And my team, my both North American-based team and my global team, is responsible for everything on the vehicle that has electrical responsibility. So everything from the wiring systems, the on-board computers, the ECUs, and the infotainment space or the radios that display the gauges, the infotaiment systems. And that’s kind of the day job of what every vehicle we have today has. The other side of my job which is really the cutting edge, leading technology, I’m sure we’ll talk more about, is in regards to the electrification, and when we talk about that, we talk about our advanced propulsion technologies. And very specifically, my team has responsibility for bringing in battery systems to the vehicle so we can fulfill our strategy of having hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, and range extending vehicles like the Chevy Volt which will be out later this year. So it’s a lot of areas. I’ve got about 1,400 people here in the U.S. working on these systems, about 2,000 globally.

Ben Lack: Wow. Talk to us a little bit about batteries. How does GM approach the development and installation of batteries? And why are the batteries that GM is working on so good? And where do you guys seeing battery technology going?

Micky Bly: Well, Ben, if you talk about the batteries… And these are not the normal 12-volt lead-acid batteries under the hood, but the ones that are really helping us increase our efficiency of our vehicles or to get more mileage or more capabilities out of the vehicles or less consumption of petroleum. Our history goes back very far, actually. Almost twenty years ago, we started down the road with a GM EV1 project where it was really the latest, maybe even the first modern-day electric vehicle. Obviously, back in the early 1900s, there were a lot of electric vehicles being played with. But we started down the path of that time recognizing in order for us to optimize the total vehicle, you had to work on many efficiencies. Obviously, mass, aerodynamics are the laws of physics that the better you get, the better the overall performance is. But we recognized then that we really needed to have a deep fundamental understanding of the battery technology due to the cost to be honest with you. Even back twenty years ago, the EV1 battery had a significant cost impact to the overall vehicle. And as that technology migrated, we actually started with large, lead-acid batteries but very quickly went into the nickel-metal hydride area which from the late 1990s up through and including the mid-2005-6-7 time frame became the standard because what you’re really looking for from a battery point of view is increased energy density. And that energy density can be thought of as the volume the battery takes up, being one of them, or the mass, how much energy you get out per unit mass. And that really had become the standard in electrification. And at that time, General Motors was a purchaser of technologies, meaning that we tried to create the most complete specification of what we needed, worked with suppliers in the industry to have them to meet our requirements, and then we brought our expertise to the show, integrating those systems into a vehicle. You could almost call it a black box approach that we took with the batteries. We were trying to become informed purchasers.

Around 2005 as the industry started looking at next-generation technologies, mainly lithium-ion batteries which was really the next fundamental step in that goal to increase energy density, really started to and is now becoming the mainstream, we decided we needed to go another layer deeper into the technology and that just writing specifications was not going to be adequate because the technology was developing so fast that we needed to understand more of the technology. So we made a commitment to not only engineer our battery systems but also going into the manufacturing of our batteries systems. Because if you’re really going to bring this technology to the mainstream market, you have to drive that cost-curve down, and you need to get more and more efficiency out of those units. So by us becoming in engineering organization and literally in the last four years, we’ve grown our expertise from maybe, two dozen engineers in this space to over four or five hundred engineers in this space. We wanted to get in and understand the fundamentals of the energy, the energy density, the optimization of the battery cells and really start engineering with those and looking at all the suppliers of the cell technology which is really the smallest fundamental unit of energy inside the battery pack.

General Motors decided we will not be a producer of cells. We will buy cell technology. We will help engineer the requirements of those. Work very closely with the suppliers. But because we made that very radical shift in our engineering understanding, we can work side by side with the technology developing of cells, the integration of the systems, the optimization of the systems and take significant costs out of those systems by working jointly collaboratively with some of the best suppliers in the world.

So that was kind of our approach to getting into the game of engineering. Then really the next cost-curve reduction that we could work on was the manufacturing. And we decided that we would get into the manufacturing of batteries just like we did seventy years ago  when we said we were going to manufacture engines and transmissions. There’s significant cost. We have immense amount of manufacturing talent and capability around the world, and we felt we needed to understand that next step. So we’ve decided to not only engineer all of our systems. We’re going to manufacture a portion of our batteries because we want to understand how we can help engineer, cost, specify, and assemble the whole system for most optimized solution. So we will not manufacture all of our batteries, but we will manufacture some percentage of those like the Volt is the first one that we have announced. We’ll be manufacturing those systems. And I tell you, the learnings we’ve gained from not only the engineering and now manufacturing has taken years out of the normal development cycle that a company would have by not getting into that level of detail.

Ben Lack: Is the lithium-ion, are they going to be used in the Chevy Volt?

Micky Bly: Absolutely. In fact, that will be first of many. And we have not really announced our whole portfolio changeover to lithium-ion. But the Chevy Volt wil be our first production introduction lithium-ion technology. One thing that’s very important to understand, Ben, is that lithium-ion is a generic name for the material inside of them. Lithium-ion is made up of many, many, many different formulations, and every supplier of cell technology has their own expertise and combination of materials. And, you know, it’s probably forty or fifty different combination of anodes, cathodes, separators and electroites. But all of them are based on the lithium-ion transferring to produce that potential that we can use in our vehicles. So it is the next step of the cost down and the energy density increasing. And we feel really is the breakthrough technology, and we will leading that area.

Ben Lack: So now that you’re using the new lithium-ion technology for your batteries, what kind of expected production could a customer assume that they’re going to receive from driving a Chevy Volt?

Micky Bly: Can you repeat the question, Ben?

Ben Lack: Now that you’re using lithium batteries, how does that new technology help in the customer’s purchase decision for saying, “Okay, I’m going to with the Chevy Volt,” instead of, maybe, another competitor or a technology that’s not electrified in some way?

Micky Bly: Okay. Very good, very good. First of all, from a lithium-ion point of view, we have already seen significant cost reductions getting ready for the Chevy Volt and, in fact, if you look at the amount of energy that’s going to be in the Chevy Volt which is, total energy on board is sixteen kilowatt hours, a significant amount of energy inside of the battery. To get that at a price-point today, they’re going to see that, at the vehicle level of being a very economical solution with a payback period that’s reachable depending on driving styles. So as the customer purchases the Chevy Volt or our other lithium-ion battery solutions from hybrids or electric vehicles that we’ll be doing, they’re going to see that cost come down very hard. There’s a lot of incentives out there from the government. The Chevy Volt gets an additional $7,500 of tax credit if they purchase the vehicle. And that’s because we’ve introduced this lithium-ion higher-density technology meets the threshold the government has set up. So because of that incentive and plus our engineering and manufacturing, the car which we have not announced the production price yet, and we probably will do that later this summer, becomes very much comparable to the cost of a current car with significant increase in fuel economy.

Ben Lack: Gotcha. So let’s take one step ahead and say that the technology for plug-in electric vehicles have obviously coming down the road as well. So when you guys are looking at the development of and manufacturing of your batteries, how do you weigh the two different offerings? Because the hybrids are obviously the now. You know, folks are buying hybrids everyday, but plug-ins are definitely an opportunity for folks to start purchasing these types of cars soon. So do you balance that?

Micky Bly: Great question. You know, as you said, the hybrids are becoming more and more accepted and understood. I won’t go into it here because it’s a very much technology discussion, but those batteries are much more power-based technologies than energy-based and again, we won’t get into the details. But as we go to get more energy diversification and getting energy off the grid instead of out of the pump or the gasoline or diesel or ethanol, you open up the possibilities of not only the supply side diversification, meaning that the producers of the energy now are not just consuming petroleum, but that grid, the electrification of the grid, and the grid, meaning the power lines across the country, that energy can be produced by solar, by wind, by hydro, by nuclear, by coal, by natural gas burning. And that itself from a societal point of view allows a much more diversification of energy, and also security of energy within the country. So from the societal point of view, it has a very significant impact. From a customer point of view on board, the cost of that energy, and depending on where you live, it’s different nighttime charging versus daytime charging, you can see your cost go down from an energy equivalent of, let’s say an Atlanta, you’re probably paying high $2.00 a gallon. California, I was there the last two days, driving the Volt, it was almost $3.50 a gallon. You can see that cost come down on an equivalent basis of energy and miles driven to in the dollar per gallon range, equivalent. And that’s a huge, huge incentive for the customer to move into the space and allow that usage of the grid power instead of gasoline.

Ben Lack: So how does GM play the game? Because there’s obviously an opportunity for somebody to put a heavy investment in plug-ins. If that ultimately is where the market is gong to go, if that is where most of the money is being spent to find ways to make sure that these batteries aren’t just forty mile an hour batteries, but they’re more in the hundred to two hundred, maybe even the three hundred mile range that folks are used to having in a petrol car.

Micky Bly: Yeah, that’s a great question because you used the statement of forty miles of electric range which the Volt is. You know, the Volt is a plug-in hybrid per se, in fact, you plug it in at night or daytime while you’re at work. It charges up if you’re at a 120 voltage connection in your garage, takes you about seven to eight hours to get a full charge from a full empty battery. If you wire in your garage to be a 240 volts or if you’re overseas where that’s readily available, you can do that in three or four hours. But after you plug it in, you drive that forty miles of electric range, and it is surprising how many customers drives less than forty miles within a trip. There’s data says that over seventy percent of the American’s public will never exceed forty miles of a daily commute of usage during a workday. So you’ll literally be able to go to work, come home and never use a drop of gasoline. But what has happened is there’s a huge amount of anxiety for pure electric vehicles that has been proven over the last twenty years including the EV1 is as you approach that empty tank or empty electric power on board your battery, you get really worried that, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to run out of energy, and I’m going to be stuck on the side of the road. I can’t get home. I’m stranded. I can’t go to hospital if it’s my only car, if I have an emergency.” So what the Chevy Volt does is take all of those great benefits of electric vehicles. We, on top of that, then have a range extending capability which says after you’ve used forty miles, and you still want to drive, we have a very small on-board generator, gasoline currently, it can be any consumable, combustible fluid, and that range extending allows you to go up to three hundred miles more in that vehicle. So you charge electrical for forty, you drive after that on gasoline up to three hundred miles. So it’s just like any other car and, in fact, you don’t need to charge it. You can just keep putting gasoline in it. Say you’re driving from Detroit to Florida. You don’t have to stop and charge it for eight hours. You keep putting gasoline in it, you drive it like a normal car. So you get the best of both worlds. You get all this electric range while you’re driving around your home or the city area. And then anytime you won’t to, you can keep driving like a regular car, and we think that’s the defining differential between a pure electric vehicle and what the Volt will offer the customer. No sacrifices at all, only great efficiency improvement.

Ben Lack: So what do you think happens first? Because obviously there’s going to be tipping point to really getting the market to fully adopt these new technologies. Are the early adopters validating that the existing hybrids and plug-in technology, that the cars work. They’re not having any problems. That that’s going to help curb some of the anxiety? Or is the thing that creates the tipping point be that you guys have a breakthrough in battery technology? And instead of giving forty to fifty miles on a simple battery charge, it’s now in the hundred to two hundred mile range. Is the advancement of these batteries so close on a timeline that we could see batteries generating a couple hundred miles per charge?

Micky Bly: Let me try to answer in two parts. I think the tipping point for early adopters and maybe even fast followers is going to be the cost factor. Early adopters by definition will pay more, but there’s a limit to what they’re willing to pay. That is going to be relieved or overcome by incentives from governments, local, state and federal, to get people to take the cost side off of it. And that’s not just direct handout to the buyer, but also back-filling the infrastructure of battery companies, to localize their production, to increase the capacity of their capability, to get more R&D dollars out there. And that’s what’s going to allow the cost to come down the initial area.

To your point about how do we get beyond the Volt capability of forty, fifty miles as you’ve said from electric range and some of our competitors have stated more than that, right now, if you look at how much energy is one these vehicles, there’s no breakthrough currently out there. I mean, it’s how much battery you want to put on, how much cost you want to put on is a function how far you go. That breakthrough technology is being developed somewhere in the world, in a university or research lab, some battery cell supplier. And what General Motors has done again, we’ve invested in our engineering capability to go out and work with anybody, and we’re very open to receiving and working with all of those agencies, universities, suppliers, you name it, because we want the best technology. We want to help them understand how to scale it to a vehicle requirement. The one thing that I will tell you that has been a learning for the battery suppliers, they’re used to supplying technology that, like cell phone technology, fairly good from its density. But, you know what, what happens in a year and a half after your cell phone battery starts to get weaker and weaker and weaker, and instead of an eight to twelve hour charge, it only gives you thirty minutes. Well, you throw it away. You recycle it. You buy another one. Our requirements at the auto company requires, both internally and regulated, these batteries to live and last for eight, ten, and fifteen years of usage in the future by regulation. So it is a complete different mindset of how that technology that breakthrough technology is going to come out and be capable at a large scale vehicle level.

Ben Lack: Final question. Could you ever envision a future wherein instead of improving, or rather instead of seeing batteries offer the range of a hundred to two hundred mile range, that there’s a model out there that instead will just replace used batteries with newer batteries, whether it’s like a gas station that replaces the batteries for you and instead of filling up your pump, you just get a new battery. Is that a feasible model for GM?

Micky Bly: Well, I think you’ve asked two questions. One is from a wear-out point of view, let’s just say, somebody, a really heavy user, hot climates, their battery becomes aged. And I’ll use that word because age has a lot of definitions to it. For its primary use in the automotive market, yes, I see that there will be an industry, and I’ll even say a service strategy that says if you are a high-end user, you know, five, ten, eight years out, you’ll be able to refresh or service that battery whether it’s from the original OEMs or another whole market that comes up. I think that will definitely happen. What’s interesting is the costs are coming down so fast, it actually could be possible in eight years from now. The battery technology that’ll be available will cost less, much less for brand new batteries than a refurbished battery that really six or seven or eight years old by the time you have to do some replacement.

The second thing you talked about is the gas station kind of a switchable battery concept. Could you go into a service station and do that? There’s a few companies out there that are looking at that, testing it in some markets. The business case is very hard to understand how that works. It’s a huge investment in infrastructure. But I will tell you that GM like many of my colleagues around the industry are looking to understand if that makes sense in the automotive truck over the road environment also.

Ben Lack: Well, Micky, I really do appreciate your time today and helping us become better understanding of the battery technology that you guys are invested in and manufacturing. And we really look forward to seeing the Chevy Volt out in the marketplace very soon. Thanks for giving so much of your time, and we look forward to speaking with you soon.

Micky Bly: Alright, Ben, my pleasure. Anytime.

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