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GM looking for a jolt from electric power

General Motors used its home auto show in Detroit this week to try to dispel the notion that the longtime industry leader is a musty relic of the 20th century. By Dan Carney.

As the world’s largest automaker, General Motors is improbably cast in the role of underdog in the industry’s move from conventional internal combustion engines to more environmentally friendly, electrically propelled vehicles.

But the automaker used its home auto show in Detroit this week to try to dispel the notion that the longtime industry leader is a musty relic of the 20th century. GM showed an array of concept cars and planned production models that illustrate the charted course toward electric drive vehicles that will, as chairman Rick Wagoner describes it, “remove the automobile from the environmental equation.”

Toyota is poised to surpass GM in global (but not U.S.) sales this year, and that could relegate the American industrial giant to being “only” a close second.

But while both companies have enormous engineering firepower, Toyota has deftly eviscerated GM in terms of cultivating public opinion. Most Americans believe the Japanese automaker’s technical prowess will be required when it comes to building the electric drive systems that could mitigate the car’s environmental impact. 

GM’s goal is to counter that with a steady rollout of new technologies as soon as they are ready, combined with frequent previews of technology that is still in the works to assure consumers that the company is not sitting still, said Beth Lowery, vice president of public policy and government relations at GM.

“We really want people to know what we are doing to be part of the solution,” she said. “Our commitment is to continually communicate that.”

The plan is to develop electrically driven vehicles that derive energy from fuel cells that use hydrogen produced entirely by renewable means. That’s a tall order with many obstacles along the way.

The first order of business is to develop and manufacture the electric motors, batteries and control systems needed to put electricity in harness for transportation, and do so in large volumes. This is where Toyota has surged to an early lead, earning front-runner status by building the hybrid gasoline-electric models found in cars like the Prius that have given Toyota the necessary experience of building these components in large numbers.

The next step is to improve these electric motors and increase the capacity of their batteries so drivers can recharge them by plugging the cars into the electrical grid rather than using a supplementary gasoline engine.

This two-step strategy can be seen in GM’s Saturn division and the hybrid products it has announced. Today Saturn sells the Aura sedan and Vue compact SUV with a Green Line package that gives these cars an affordable, mild hybrid drivetrain for a 15 percent boost to the efficiency of their four-cylinder gasoline engines.

Late this year, Saturn will introduce a two-mode hybrid version of the Vue Green Line. GM has already introduced its two-mode hybrid-electric drivetrain into its full-size trucks and SUVs, but the Vue will be the first use of the technology in a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

Two-mode hybrids can operate using a battery or directly from a gas engine, which trims highway fuel consumption. This also means that trucks and SUVs using the system have undiminished towing and hauling capacity, so customers can get better mileage while commuting to and from work, and they can also tow their boat or camper on the weekend.

“People are really interested in being able to have their SUV and having better fuel economy,” Lowery observed.

With this in mind, the two-mode Vue uses a 3.6-liter V6 gas engine rather than the four-cylinder engine in the regular Vue Green Line, so that the two-mode can tow up to 3,500 pounds, but still enjoys a 50 percent improvement in fuel economy when unhitched.

Then, as soon as 2010, GM will offer a plug-in version of the Vue Green Line two-mode hybrid. This vehicle will be very similar to the two-mode model to be offered this year, with the substitution of its nickel metal hydride batteries with lithium-ion batteries and the addition of a cord to plug the Vue into electric outlets.

This plug-in vehicle promises the ability to drive as far as 10 miles at around-town speeds on electric-only power. Plugging in the Vue could let it burn half as much fuel as any SUV on the road today, Wagoner said.

Key to selling plug-in hybrids is the development of safe and durable lithium-ion batteries, which are not currently available. GM plans to start testing these batteries in vehicles by June, in preparation for manufacturing, according to Denise Gray, director of energy storage systems for GM. While the batteries still aren’t ready for prime time, the development engineers are getting promising results from testing.

“So far, so good,” she said. “We were hoping some of the data would come out the way that it did.”

Key to the development effort is learning whether the batteries will be able to deliver the desired ability to propel a car 40 miles between charges even in mountainous terrain and in cold weather when electric power would be needed to heat the cabin and defrost windows, she said.

Still farther along the development arc is the Saturn Flextreme, a crossover wagon concept vehicle that uses GM’s E-Flex hybrid electric powertrain first introduced in the Chevrolet Volt. This design uses electric motors exclusively to propel the vehicle, with a supplementary powerplant to charge the batteries when needed.

In the Flextreme — which was first seen as an Opel concept car at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Europe, where diesels are very popular — a 1.3-liter diesel four-cylinder engine charges the batteries. The Chevy Volt, which the company hopes to bring to market in 2010, will use more conventional gasoline power.

The ultimate iteration of the E-Flex architecture uses a hydrogen fuel cell as the source of on-board power to charge the batteries, and at the Detroit show GM showed its plans for that with the Cadillac Provoq Concept.

The Provoq, which presages the styling of the crossover SUV that will likely replace the current Cadillac SRX as a 2010 model, is a good candidate to later become GM’s first commercially available fuel-cell vehicle. That’s because the crossover body style has enough room to hold the bulky hydrogen fuel tanks and because as a pricey premium model, its customers can bear the added expense of a fuel cell powertrain replacing the gas engine.

In preparation for the eventual sale of such vehicles to customers, GM is conducting a field test of a fleet of fuel cell Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUVs this year, when consumers who have been selected from an online application process get the chance to use the company’s small fleet of prototype vehicles for a few months in everyday driving.

“Just to be perfectly clear,” Wagoner said, “GM will continue to drive the development of electrically driven vehicles, our E-Flex propulsion system, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell technology with all the speed we can muster.”