GM looking to combination of internal R&D and external investments for new technology; focus on five key areas; the importance of generational change
General Motors is leveraging two separate organizations—its internal R&D group and the recently formed GM Ventures—to accelerate innovation and to introduce new technology to keep the company on the forefront of the technology revolution now taking place in the automotive industry, according to John Lauckner, GM’s Chief Technology Officer; Vice President, Global Research & Development; and President, GM Ventures.
During a talk at the recent Electrification Experience symposium (earlier post), Lauckner briefly outlined GM’s efforts to leverage three sources of technology: technology developed in house, through R&D or advanced engineering; technology from outside the company from startups; and technology from suppliers and engineering firms. GM is focusing on five key areas, Lauckner said:
|“Now more than ever we are working with non-automotive companies in terms of sourcing the technology.”
Automotive clean-tech, including batteries, motors, power electronics, emissions control devices, things related to propulsion
The connected vehicle, including information and entertainment, new approaches for HMI, cloud computing.
Advanced materials, including lightweight materials, eco-friendly materials, phase-change materials, forming technology.
Sensors, processors and memory. “This is a huge new category because there are a lot of capabilities that we can give vehicles, but we need more capable sensors. There is an awful lot of processing power on vehicles today. Go back 12 years and look at typical vehicle, an upper average vehicle. You would have seen about 20 spearate electric control units, about 1 million lines of software code. Today it is not unusual to find 75 seperate control modules and upwards of 100 millions lines of code. There has been a huge step forward; I don’t think anyone has a really good guess as to where it will be in another 10-12 years,” Lauckner said.
Manufacturing technology. An area that will always be core.
These are not the only areas of innovation, but these are the areas of innovation where we expect to see some significant breakthroughs, and where if you can get a competitive advantage, it probably will give you a very good chance of longer term success.
So the question is how do we go about actually unlocking the capability actually to identify and to develop advanced technology. I think now more than ever before it’s going to leveraging all the sources of innovation to a much greatrer degree than we have in the past. I call that approach “Develop, Invest, Partner”.
Basically what it means it that we will take the best of what the outside can offer, we’ll take the best of what we can offer, and we will do something remarkable. That probably is going to be the way forward for us because the breadth of technology out there is so vast that it really exceeds our capability to keep track of it technically and for us to invest in it all by ourselves financially. We need to leverage other sources of technology besides what we develop in house.—John Lauckner
Lauckner quickly ticked off the technology needs on the electrification side, noting the challenges in batteries, motors, power electronics and systems integration—although noting that “batteries cast the longest shadow.”
It’s about higher performance at lower cost. We have to raise the value proposition for customers. Everybody in a certain way understands the benefit of electric drive, but the cost of the technology is too high. The capability isn’t perfectly matched with the typical type of internal combustion engine vehicles we are used to.
It’s not about rapidly changing electric drive technology as much as it is changing the technology in a way to give customers more capability at lower cost. That’s really what’s going to drive the longer term success.—John Lauckner
There is a great deal of work to do in four main elecrtification technologies, Lauckner said:
Higher capability batteries; i.e., higher energy capacity with a decent amount of power.
Motors. Permanent magnet motors today use fair amounts of neodymium, dysprosium and sometimes other elements. Increasing demand as electrification spreads will increase upward price pressure. GM is investigating a variety of options in the area, including non-rare-earth magnet motors.
Power electronics. Power electronics, said Lacukner, is really about high frequency switching. Emerging technologies such as gallium nitride (GaN) offer higher switching performance with more power at higher temperature. “That’s very useful,” note Lauckner. “When we generate heat we have to cool it, and that’s additional cost as well.”
Systems for charging, cooling, etc.
Scale or generational change. Referring to numerous reports looking to increase scale of production as the means to bring cost down for electrification technology, Lauckner suggested that while scale has some benefit, the “big step forward” is going to be “the generational improvements that we get as we move from one type of technology into the next and into the next.”
Next generation electric vehicles need higher capability and lower cost. It’s not just about scale, it’s getting through those cycles of learning, getting to a more capable technology. It is reasonable to expect significant improvement in next generation battery technology.—John Lauckner
Lauckner said he anticipated next-generation battery technology within the next 5 years or so, with higher capability and lower cost. “Quite frankly,” he added, “energy density and cost are highly inversely correlated.” Noting that there is uncertainty about the outcome, because of wide difference in formulations, manufacturing processes, and so on, Lauckner projected an energy density of about 300 Wh/kg at a cost of $200–$400/kWh for the next-generation cells.
Further out, so-called “horizon technologies” (beyond Li-ion), could get to about 500 Wh/kg and $100/kWh, he suggested.
Durability and power, we still have to get to the bottom of those. But there is reason to be optimistic that battery technology—which by far casts the longest shadow on grid-centric vehicles—there is reason to believe it will improve quite significantly in the future.—John Lauckner
In terms of the application of internal resources, Lauckner said that GM R&D was working on both the next-generation cells as well as some horizon technologies—upon which he declined to elaborate.
GM Ventures. Formed by Lauckner in 2010 as a GM subsidiary, GM Ventures has invested in a number of companies, some of which are nano-structured steel company NanoSteel (earlier post); advanced Li-ion materials company Envia Systems (earlier post); battery-electric bus company Proterra (earlier post); battery startup Sakti3 (earlier post); peer-to-peer car sharing company RelayRides (earlier post); and solar power company Sunlogics (earlier post). GM Ventures also had a stake in Bright Automotive (earlier post), which shut down earlier this year.