GM R&D Boss Hints At Tesla-Surpassing Batteries

Unlike Tesla Motors which has gone on record saying by 2016 it will offer a Nissan Leaf-beating, 200-mile-range electric car in the low $30,000-range, General Motors plays its hand much closer to its chest, but it would be inadvisable to think the giant is sleeping.

On Wednesday this week at the annual conference of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, GM’s head of global R&D let his guard down slightly in saying prototype electric cars now being evaluated on U.S. test tracks have triple the energy density of a Chevrolet Volt, and close to double that of a Tesla Model S.

A Volt has about 140 watt-hours per kilogram energy density in its LG Chem lithium-ion T-shaped battery pack. Tesla’s “skateboard” chassis now uses Panasonic cells that reportedly deliver as much as 240 Wh/kg, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said to expect more.

And so has GM in so many words.

“Today there are prototypes out there with 400 Watt-hours per kilogram,” said Dr. J. Gary Smyth, executive director of Global Research and Development, General Motors Company.

This he said in a post-meeting interview to Canadian journalist, Chris Vander Doelen, a writer for The Windsor Star.

(Note: Photo of the Cadillac ELR above is just an example of a GM test car. The actual test cars are all-electric, and we were not provided photos of them.)

To the audience of industry peers, Smyth had said that these electric cars with batteries boasting triple the range capacity (also) of a Nissan Leaf could be on the road in five to ten years – a very hedged estimate, and longer than GM’s own CEO has vaguely estimated on another occasion.

Chances are good that Smyth's statement was a veiled reference to Envia Systems chemistry.

Chances are good that Smyth’s statement was a veiled reference to Envia Systems chemistry.

Smyth added the mystery batteries will cost much less than batteries in today’s electric cars and they’ll have a “big impact” on the auto industry and “it completely changes the equation” on cost, range, and vehicle packaging.

“We’re putting a lot of effort into developing battery cells,” Smyth told Vander Doelen in the post-meeting interview.

When asked whether U.S. test cars he spoke of actually belonged to GM, Smyth neither confirmed nor denied, and instead deflected by saying merely that most such test vehicles are being sponsored by government agencies.

This is not surprising. It is during industry meetings like this one in Canada that leaders must somehow share progress reports for automotive technology, but at the same time they run the risk of going beyond the bounds in divulging information that their own communications personnel would not.

Knowing this, we nonetheless followed up on Smyth’s statements today with GM’s Kevin M. Kelly, manager, Electric Vehicle and Hybrid Communications. We were not expecting any revelations, and sure enough, Kelly said he was not at liberty to discuss future developments.

From Envia Systems Web site

From Envia Systems Web site

The figure of “400 Watt-hours per kilogram” stated by Smyth is however the specific claim of Envia Systems, a battery supplier in Newark, Calif., and known to be working with GM, and GM has also invested in Envia through its forward looking GM Ventures division.

Last August, GM CEO Dan Akerson – who’s also known to let the proverbial horses out of the stable on occasion – called Envia Systems a “game changer” just as Smyth might have this week.

Kelly said he could only confirm GM is indeed working with various suppliers but would not say whether Envia’s batteries were the ones Smyth had described to industry peers.

GM has also been testing EVs in Europe and Asia. (all-electric Chevy Sail shown).

GM has also been testing EVs in Europe and Asia (all-electric Chevy Sail shown).

At the meeting Wednesday, Smyth also told Vander Doelen that GM is working on battery pack design, including one under development for a truck.

Smyth said further that while GM can manufacture lithium-ion batteries, and does already in Michigan and Shanghai labs, it doesn’t want to manufacture them.

GM is only developing its own energy storage technologies, Smyth said, to learn enough “to push the supply base.”

While Nissan has gone gung-ho in building America’s largest battery plant, and Tesla is fast becoming an energy supplier as well as automaker, GM too is quietly working and spurring others as well.

As it develops technologies behind a normally concealing veil, it would appear when it is good and ready, GM wants to be able to introduce world-changing electric cars of its own – ones whose goal is no less than sending internal combustion vehicles several steps closer to extinction.