GM: Mild Hybrids, Then Full Hybrids, Then EVs, In That Order

GM Mild Hybrid Cutaway

Cutaway of the previous version of G.M.’s mild hybrid technology, briefly put to use on discontinued Saturn and Chevy hybrids.

Earlier this month, we reported that General Motors will bring back its low-cost mild hybrid technology. G.M. will start with at least one mid-sized mild hybrid sedan next year—ramping up to 100,000 mild hybrids per year. Does this mean that G.M. is slowing down on production of the Chevy Volt, or wavering from global plans for more electric cars? No. But everyday we see more evidence that the entire auto industry’s green car roadmap begins with more efficient gas engines, then conventional hybrids, and finally plug-in cars.

“After we’ve explored everything in a conventional system, the next logical step is in mild hybrids, then strong hybrids and electrics,” said Larry Nitz, engineering director for hybrid electric powertrain engineering for GM global product operations. Nitz, speaking at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars in early August, was quoted by Plastics News.

That roadmap bears a striking resemblance to Ford’s electrification strategy. Ford puts “Ecoboost,” its fuel-efficient conventional internal combustion technology, as the first milestone on its green trajectory. Ford’s Nancy Gioia, director of vehicle electrification, says that hybrids and electric cars could make up 25 percent of the company’s offerings by 2020. But she always qualifies the claim by saying that 75 percent of those vehicles will be conventional hybrids, and only a small percentage points for full battery-electric cars. Ford’s conventional gas-electric cars are full hybrids.

G.M.’s new mild hybrid powertrain reportedly will be equipped with a lithium ion battery supplied by Hitachi, and will provide about four times as much power and will be 24 percent smaller and 40 percent lighter than previous mild hybrid battery packs. Unlike a full hybrid system, a mild hybrid system cannot propel a vehicle on electric power alone. It only shuts off the gasoline engine when the car stops and then uses the batteries to restart the engine. The electric motor also provides a boost during acceleration.

So while the Chevy Volt, Nissan LEAF and other electric cars take center stage in the coming months, auto engineers’ first priority is making gas-powered vehicles go further on a gallon of gas. That’s true for Ford, as well as GM which expects that conventional gasoline engines will still be on 80 percent of all vehicles in 2020. And it’s even true for Nissan, which sees electric cars rising to 10 percent of its sales by 2020. The other 90 percent will have a gas engine on board—many of them assisted by batteries and an electric motor.

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  • Shines

    If the starter motor on these “mild” hybrids is powerful enough to crank the engine while the transmission is in gear (like trying to start up a manual transmission car by turning the ignition switch with the clutch engaged in first gear) then the starter motor is initiating acceleration and it could be called a hybrid. If that is how the stop start works…

  • James Hea

    It is a most unfortunate understanding that GM has regarding advancing technology. Their plan while sensible is out of step with the market and simply not innovative enough. It is a similar plan that they had before going bankrupt. Unfortunately, I see them walking down the same road again. The company has been hollowed out and is sadly lacking in commitment.

    Lutz was on the right track and forced their hand in developing the Volt. The adoption of the Volt platform by the other brands is a great strategy to leverage that investment. Why then, go back in time, and emphasize fuel efficiency of conventional engines and mild hybrids?

    Bye bye GM. Your marketing department just made a major gaffe. And hopefully your engineering department is being a bit more sensible in leveraging your most advanced technologies first before bringing up the rear with conventional engines and mild hybrids. What a waste.


  • sri

    It looks almost like GM wants to fail. Improving conventional engine is fine. But exactly how cheap their mild-hybrid is going to be? Unless they can do it for a few hundred dollars, I don’t see it being successful. Toyota’s hybrid cost is said to be around 2 grands. If GM is going to offer a far inferior system for 1 grand, it’s simply not going to fly. If they didn’t learn that with the old malibu hybrid, the failure of insight should have told them that.

  • Anonymous

    earth to gm: mild hybrid didn’t work for you before, it won’t work for you now. people like to go forward as time goes by, not backwards.

    based on this, one would have to be fairly brain dead to buy in on the coming ipo. gov should have let this company die rather than making us suffer through gm’s hopelessness

  • Bruce

    How VERY sad. GM’s mild hybrids were a joke. Changing to a Lithium Ion battery will not change that. Probably just make them more expensive than the prior incarnation.

    The ‘Hybrid’ Malibu got the same (or 1 MPG WORSE) highway mileage as the various 4 cyl Malibu non-hybrid models. The MPG gain was in stopping the engine at red lights, good for about 10% improved MPG on a tank of gas and only if you spend a lot of time on busy city streets. But the cost of the car was substantially higher than the equivalent 4 cyl. I thought GM had learned from that but I guess not.

  • Indigo

    The prior BAS architecture was a joke. If GM can’t deliver a 25% improvement in fuel economy for under $1,200, they might as well not bother.

  • Shines

    Mild to Full to EV is the proper logical direction. Think about it. Less than 5% of cars are hybrid less than .1% EV. Why do you think all car makers sell a conventional version of all hybrids except for the Prius and Insight? Most folks do not want to pay the hybrid/EV premium. If GM can make these mild hybrids for a $2k premium instead of a $5k premium (for full hybrids) they should be able to sell them. If GM attempts to sell these mild hybrids for a $4k premium they’ll go bankrupt.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    GM continues to drag their feet. Nothing new here. Let’s see how they botch up the Volt. Funny that it wasn’t mentioned here.

  • Octavius

    OK. So GM wants to take a walk on the mild side — again. The way to think about that is this:

    Real hybrids (think Prius) are only a few % of the market — so, say, each of the 2-3% or so saves 40% on gas. Now how does that compare to 100% of your models saving 2-10% on gas because you have the more economical engine combined with a BAS system? In the end, you get more total savings, because a lot of people can (or will) afford only less expensive vehicles, when they can make a new car purchase at atll (think high school and college grads).

    As long as ICEs are going to be around, in both hybrid and non-hybrids — and it will be a while — start with the engine and go from there. The trendy/spendy crowd that drools over a new wild hybrid is going to be paying more than I have paid for all of the(used) cars that I have ever owned put together in my 30 years of car ownership.

  • Jim Hock

    After 18,000 miles and 2 years experience with my hybrid (39.5 mpg overall city), here’s what I believe it takes: (1.) A/C must work 100% while engine is off (2.) Vehicle must be capable of normal (EV powered) “creep” in heavy stop/go traffic without start/stopping the gas engine endlessly. (This is a key fault with the some” almost hybrids”). If the new GM vehicles can do that, great. GM has proven they can do the full parallel hybrid technology (Volt – with its big secret now out)!, now it’s time to refine and build off that technology and not step backwards.

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