Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Where Will GM Go from Here?

Ethanol? Hydrogen? Plug-in Hybrids? Dare We Say Electric Cars?

Recently, it seems like everyone is speculating on the future of General Motors. Some are saying that the Volt will decide it all, others are saying that in the light of current gas prices, it's probably already over.

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Last month, sales of small cars rose dramatically and the "tiny" 4-cylinder finally overtook the 6-cylinder in U.S. sales. In less recent history, GM was unseated from its eight-decade long spot at the top by Japanese manufacturer Toyota.

Where does all this leave GM then? Well, the company isn't exactly belly-up yet, but you can surmise from its heavy advertising of the Volt, a car that's still two years away, that the company is trying to look to future technological developments to resurrect it from the SUV-sized grave it's dug for itself.

On that front, GM does have some grand promises. Aside from the much talked about Chevy Volt, GM plans to roll out new hybrids on a regular basis for the next several years (though at the same time they don't seem to be selling any). Diesel techs have developed a new 4.5 liter V8 diesel that seems promising. Finally, engineers are looking further down the road to HCCI technology, in hopes that it will make environmentally friendly driving more affordable and widespread.

From this, and conversations with people within GM, I think it's fair to say that GM is aggressively pursuing the greening of their business. At the same time, however, I think it would be prudent to look at the long-term goals of the company. I recently spent some time at a very insightful GM conference, where I learned a little bit about the company's plan for the future.

Liquid fuels, as the engineers pointed out, are very good energy storage media, which is why they are so prevalent currently. GM aims to move from today's liquid fuels to ethanol, a move we currently see in effect with GM's varied and rarely used Flex-Fuel Vehicles. Ethanol, especially from corn, certainly has its fair share of issues right now, however, and not everyone is happy with this move. From ethanol the company wishes to explore hybrids, which, as I have already mentioned, they are aggressively rolling onto the lot, but not so aggressively rolling off.

From there the company will try to make the leap from predominately liquid fuel-based vehicles to other modes of propulsion. After hybrids, E-Flex technology (the system being developed for the Volt), will create a generation of "extended range electric vehicles," which to me is a greenwashed version of the more used term, plug-in hybrids. While E-Flex promises decent electric-only range, it still relies on gasoline energy and does not require the paradigm shift that a true battery electric would. GM would then, somewhere far in the future, transition to hydrogen electric vehicles. Like the current hydrogen cars you see so much chatter about, these would use hydrogen as an energy storage system, which would create electricity to power electric-drive vehicles.

Whether this is folly or not, I shall not claim to be the judge of. However, I do wonder, where are the electric cars? GM did it years ago, the limited range would definitely be more than sufficient to service a majority of the population, and the technology is available now. Hydrogen should certainly be explored, but why pin our hopes on something so uncertain when we already have an efficient, tangible solution at our fingertips?

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