On Monday, March 12, General Motors assembled its top team of engineers and battery partners to describe the challenges GM faces in bringing a plug-in hybrid to market. The event provided a useful window into the thinking of the company’s executives and engineers—and an opportunity for journalists to ask questions that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) advocates have been posing for months.

The event, which was called an "advanced battery technology briefing," included a tour of GM’s lab, where 30 chemists and engineers are working on the program. The speakers included Beth Lowery, vice president for energy and environment; Denise Gray, director of hybrid energy storage systems; and representatives from the Johnson Controls-SAFT consortium, and the joint venture between A123 Systems and Cobasys.

First, the GM speakers presented the various issues and challenges involved in designing and validating suitable PHEV batteries at the cell, pack and vehicle level, in terms of lifetime, cost, safety, and robustness. Then the battery companies delved into the same issues, as well as manufacturing challenges. The recurring theme was that much work lay ahead, but no technology breakthroughs were required.

Tough Questions
When the floor was opened for questions, many of the themes that CalCars has been raising for some time were echoed by the attending journalists.

A reporter asked why it had taken GM so long to get involved in lithium-ion batteries, pointing to Tesla’s progress with its lithium battery packs. The company emphasized that it has been working on batteries since the early 90s.

Another asked about lithium supplies. A representative from A123 said it was confident about availability for at least 10-20 years. When asked about battery recycling, GM said it was confident about systems to recapture lithium and create a recycling market. Another asked about battery development, and GM emphasized that it took a long time to evaluate a battery’s cycle life and calendar life to see if it could meet a 10-year/150,000 mile standard.

Then Matthew Wald of the New York Times asked two key questions: Why expect the batteries to last the lifetime of the vehicle? And why not explore secondary uses for batteries once they no longer can accept a full charge? GM engineer Nick Zielinski replied that the company was setting aggressive targets for durability, and would not want batteries to be seen as a "maintenance part." Wald suggested this approach might lead to setting goals that would be hard to meet and would slow PHEVs reaching the market. Zielinski insisted that the company’s firm goal was to use a battery that lasts the lifetime of the vehicle.

Eliminating Risk with Alternative Warranties
Then I asked Beth Lowery if they had considered the possibility that legislators, government regulators and fleet owners could come together to support GM’s production of PHEVs with a 75,000 mile/5 year warranty, along with third-party warranties on the first thousands of vehicles—thereby eliminating risk factors to buyers and sellers, and enabling GM to get plug-in hybrids on the road sooner.

Lowery agreed that demonstration fleets were important and emphasized that GM was "in the business of getting things right." She said the third-party warranty was an "interesting concept," but she said it would be difficult to put in place. When I asked point-blank if they had discussed with any government officials either warranties or easing the regulatory requirements for warranties, she said no. She reiterated that the company was very interested in consumer incentives and other government programs.

The Perfect and the Good
GM is apparently overlooking the key role that warranties could play.

  • The California Air Resources Board and other agencies could smooth the path to commercialization by exempting the first PHEVs from lifetime requirements for the battery.
  • To reduce the cost of warranties, utilities could evaluate what they might pay for "80% good" batteries for use in buildings or other stationary devices.
  • Federal and state legislators could transform proposed incentives for PHEVs into payments for battery warranties, and swiftly pass the DRIVE Act and send it to the President.

GM can’t imagine the first PHEV batteries as a "maintenance part." Why not? Tires and other major components get replaced—and they’re warranted separately from cars. In creating a development program that requires a 150,000-mile battery now, GM is making the perfect the enemy of the good. Validating the full lifetime of batteries takes a long time, and it could unnecessarily delay the introduction of a vehicle that might be ready sooner.

This is an abridged version of the report at the CalCars-News Archive.