GM’s skin in the electric car game

Who killed the electric car? This time nobody is accusing General Motors 

by Allen Best

General Motors was depicted as something less than heroic in the 2006 documentary film called “Who Killed the Electric Car.”

Howard A. “Hal” Lenox, the Western regional director of government affairs for General Motors, makes the case that whatever the accuracy of that depiction then, GM is now very much in the chase.

“We are absolutely into this 100 percent,” he said at a program hosted by Davis, Graham and Stubbs and sponsored by the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association.

plug-in vehicle salesElectrification, he said, is crucial for GM to meet the escalating fuel efficiency standards adopted by the federal government two years ago.

Fuel efficiency has already improved. Three years ago, just 16 percent of vehicles sold by GM achieved at least 30 mpg on highways. Today, it’s 40 percent.

After shelving its first electric car a decade ago, GM two years ago introduced the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. On a full electrical charge, it can go 38 miles. But it also has a gasoline backup.

A device installed in the cars of consenting owners allows GM to track fueling patterns. As of mid-November, Volt owners relied on batteries for two-thirds of their miles traveled and gasoline for a third. Many Volt owners average 900 miles between fill-ups of gasoline.

GM, like other automakers, has expanded its offerings. One electric offering is the Cadillac ELR. Lenox said he believes that GM offered the electric Cadillac to send the message that it is serious about vehicle electrification.

In January, GM will unveil its second-generation Volt. While GM has been sparing in details of what to expect and Lenox wasn’t any different, he did not deny bloggers’ conjectures of “surmising it will be a 200-mile car.”

That, of course, would put a Volt within striking distance of the 250 miles that the fully electric Tesla Model S can get on a battery charge. GM’s response, he said, is “we will see you and we will raise you.” While others have dismissed Tesla founder Elon Musk, “we believe he is somebody to be taken very seriously,” said Lenox. “He is pushing us to be better.”

gorwing diversity of modelsGM is also pursuing other non-gasoline segments, including biofuels and hydrogen. Lenox described hydrogen as “great technology, very expensive, and no infrastructure.” California, with an incentive program, is attempting to overcome that lack of infrastructure. But GM has a $200 million research facility in Michigan and a partnership with Honda. Honda is determined to unveil a fuel-cell, i.e. hydrogen, vehicle next year.

Lenox was asked if there were one or two policies that all states should adopt, the low-hanging fruit of policy.

He responded with a laundry list: high-occupancy vehicle policies, dedicated places for parking of alternative-fuel vehicles, and, of course, charging infrastructure.

“But there really isn’t a silver bullet,” he said. States and markets are different, and the responses should be different, too.

What Colorado is doing

Colorado’s has a strategy of playing to its strengths in ways to address its most significant problems. Wes Maurer, transportation program manager for the Colorado Energy Office, pointed out that Colorado is a net importer of oil, despite the rapidly expanding production from the Niobrara formation.

In natural gas, however, Colorado is a net exporter. In recent years, Gov. John Hickenlooper has pushed efforts to convert to natural gas vehicles in state and other vehicle fleets.Colorado alterantive fuels interest

Mauer said that light-duty natural-gas vehicles have 6 to 11 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Replacing older diesels with natural gas-fueled vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent, nitrous oxides by 90 percent and volatile organic compounds by 43 percent.

Too, natural gas is cheap. In the Rocky Mountain region, it cost $1.61 per gallon equivalent in July 2013 as compared to $3.62 then for gasoline.

Colorado’s northern Front Range has a significant problem with lung-scarring ozone. The ground-level ozone has many causes, one of them automobile exhausts. Shifting vehicles from gasoline to natural gas and electricity will reduce the stew of toxins. This is especially true after two coal plants, in Denver and Boulder, are shifted from coal to natural gas during the next several years, according to research by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.2013 NOx emissions

The Regional Air Quality Council, or RAQC, the leading air-quality planning agency for the nine-county northern Front Range, has a direct interest in expanding the fueling infrastructure for alternative vehicles.

RAQC, working in conjunction with state and federal agencies and Noble Energy, is devoting $52 million to create alternate-fueling infrastructure and alternate-fueling vehicles.

Steve McCannon, mobile sources program manager for RAQC, said on-road mobile sources caused 40 percent of nitrous oxide emissions in 2013.

Note: The story was amended to correct an error spotted by an observant reader that confused the Leaf and the Volt.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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2 Responses to GM’s skin in the electric car game

  1. Dwane Anderson says:

    How did you go from

    “In January, GM will unveil its second-generation Volt. While GM has been sparing in details of what to expect and Lenox wasn’t any different, he did not deny bloggers’ conjectures of “surmising it will be a 200-mile car.”

    to

    “That, of course, would put a *Leaf* within striking distance of the 250 miles that the fully electric Tesla Model S can get on a battery charge.

    What has the new Volt got to do with the Leaf?

    The Volt has always been a >200 mile car due to its range extender.

  2. Jay Santos says:

    In your article you stated,
    “After shelving its first electric car a decade ago, GM two years ago introduced the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid.”
    the Volt rolled out of the production line (albeit in limited numbers) in late 2010. Perhaps it only became available in your area the last 2 years, but it started rolling out 4 years ago.

    Also, as Dwayne pointed out already, your reference to the conjecture that the Volt 2.0 will be a 200 mile car is confusing. The car will currently travel beyond that with the range extender. If you really meant on the battery range, then you are referring to another GM vehicle that would be released after the Volt 2.0. There have been articles speculating that this new 200 mile-range pure EV car would be based on the next generation Sonic.

    More details have come out regarding Volt 2.0 and it will still be an EREV. As you stated already, it will be unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show (along with more detailed specs on EV range, gas fuel efficiency, seating, etc.

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