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September 2007


General Motors’ competitive spirit

Despite growing competition from foreign automakers, General Motors Corporation (GM) still retains its position as the pre-eminent automobile manufacturer in North America and is a major international player via its ownership in overseas manufacturing firms.

Al Weverstad

There is a public perception that domestic auto manufacturers are unable to compete with their foreign competitors and meet market demands. Al Weverstad, GM’s executive director of environment and energy recognizes that perception, but disagrees with it.

In the following interview, Weverstad outlines GM’s plans to remain competitive and embrace new technology.

QUESTION: What practical steps are GM and the American automobile manufacturing industry taking to develop more fuel-efficient engines and vehicles?

ANSWER: We are working on a number of fronts, including continuing to improve the traditional internal combustion engine with advanced technologies such as active fuel management, six speed transmissions, and variable valve timing; and with the use of alternative fuels like E85 ethanol. GM has also pledged a broad commitment to producing electrically-driven vehicles that help diversify energy sources, reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency. Vehicles include hybrids, plug-in hybrids, extended range electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

We currently have over 2 million Flex Fuel vehicles on the road today – vehicles that can run with E85.

We are also electrifying the vehicle - this includes simple hybrids like the Saturn Vue, Saturn Aura and the Malibu, which have regenerative braking, electronic assist on acceleration and early fuel cutoff on deceleration and two-mode hybrids, like the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, which we consider an improvement over the Prius single-mode type. These vehicles have two electrical motors – one to operate at low speed operations and the other at higher speeds.

This is a system that goes into our full-size sport utilities this fall and will be expanded to operate in pick-up trucks and a front-wheel drive version to go into our Saturn Vue. We are also working on a plug-in hybrid with a Saturn Vue that uses a lithium-ion battery that will have some all-electric range.

We’ve also introduced the Chevrolet Volt concept car, part of the E-flex system, which is basically an electric car that has an extended range capacity either through a plug-in system or an internal gasoline (and E85) engine, diesel engine or fuel cell that is used to provide energy to the battery on long trips.


QUESTION: How many years does the American automobile manufacturing industry have to match and exceed Japanese and other foreign automobile manufacturers in terms of fuel efficiency and smaller sized vehicles in order to remain competitive?

ANSWER: We are competitive in regard to fuel efficiency and small-sized vehicles. A lot of people don’t realize this, but GM offers 24 vehicles that get 30 or more miles per gallon and that is more than any of our competitors – Toyota or Honda. They are not just econo-box models either. They include models like the Impala, Malibu, Saturn Aura, Buick Lacrosse, Pontiacs G5 and G6, and the HHR.

We still have some work to do in terms of changing people’s perceptions of what GM has to offer in terms of high fuel economy vehicles.

QUESTION: Many critics of the American automobile manufacturing industry have long complained that the industry is resistant to calls for the development of more fuel efficient vehicles and deliberately exaggerates the effect of legislative standards to improve fuel efficiency.

ANSWER: Why would anyone in our industry not want to have the most fuel-efficient vehicles? It is in our best interest to provide vehicles with good fuel economy, along with all of the vehicle attributes customers want and expect. It is always challenging to find the right balance of design, safety, fuel economy and utility to meet our consumer’s needs in a package that they are willing to pay for.

And we need help from consumers. They have to value fuel economy and alternative energy vehicles. While everybody talks about hybridization, people often aren’t willing to pay the true cost that the hybrid vehicle adds to the price of the vehicle to cover the cost of these technologies.

Personally I cannot think of another law in NYC or anywhere else for that matter, where the belief is that this level of remedial education is necessary to insure basic compliance.

The average recycling violation in NYC is presently $25 per violation, an amount that is not likely to motivate the most recalcitrant members of our population to ever greater heights of compliance.

If we are indeed serious about achieving greater recycling compliance, we must increase fines for violations of the law and apply them wherever and whenever noncompliance is found. We do this for street sweeping and we do this for litter. People don’t like it, but people comply.

QUESTION: Concerning the plug-in hybrid vehicle, do you foresee that type of vehicle becoming the standard for GM and other manu- facturers?

ANSWER: It’s too early to tell. Certainly there will be a niche for plug-in hybrids. Clearly the first thing we should do to displace gasoline is use alternative fuels such as E85. The second displacement will be through conventional hybridization.

The next step would be plugging it in, taking the normal hybrid and adding a larger battery so that you can store more energy, but that takes a lot of battery breakthroughs that can store more energy, deal with temperature requirements that vary from –35 F to 110 F, and still be able to operate and transfer energy in those weather conditions without the battery pack overheating.

We’re pushing hard and we’ve got battery development contracts out with various suppliers. We are going to develop vehicles, assuming that the battery people are there for us, but you just can’t develop a vehicle without properly validating it and having a supplier that says “I’ll be able to make on an as required basis and I’ll be able to service them.”

QUESTION: How would plug-in vehicles affect vehicle design and the development of parts that are easier to recycle as such vehicles require smaller engines and less moving parts?

ANSWER: Batteries are very expensive and all of those batteries wear out. You have to be able to remove them and recycle them. Because we require those batteries to be in such tip-top shape, our view is that you could ship them to utility companies and firms who would re-use them as a back-up power supply, and when they get through with them, they will be dismantled and disposed of.

You could also have a situation where battery companies just lease the batteries to reduce the cost and when the batteries have deteriorated to a certain level, you trade them in. Ultimately it is going to mean more work for the recycling industry. So these are all elements we need to think through with our various suppliers as we develop and bring these new technologies to market.

QUESTION: Could American automobile manufacturers be doing more to promote the recycling of end-of-life vehicles and are they maximizing the purchase of recyclable materials?

ANSWER: Eighty-five percent of vehicles are recycled at the end of their lives and 82 percent of the material in each vehicle is recycled or recovered; and because we have so much metal in products, there are significant amounts of high value recyclable materials. Do we need to do better? Absolutely, and in this area, we work closely on trying to use even more recyclable materials.

We have a major focus on recycling materials and use all the waste because that is pure savings and goes right to the bottom line. In the last five years, we have reduced our waste per vehicle by 13 percent and we recycle 89 percent of our waste at GM.