General Motors CEO Mary Barra called 2021 an “inflection point” not only for advances in automotive technology but for the political and environmental future of society as a whole...
The mantra repeated throughout a keynote presentation by General Motors CEO Mary Barra Tuesday at the CES was that 2021 marks an “inflection point” not only for advances in automotive technology but for the political and environmental future of society as a whole.
As she began her address, Barra invoked terms rarely or never heard before at this iconic gathering of engineers, salespeople and technologists. They are terms that included “climate change,” “zero emissions,” “racial justice,” and “gender equality.”
The GM keynote, of course, transitioned into a more typical CES gadget debut, as executives introduced new generations of the General Motors product line — including a radically improved battery design for electric vehicles (EV) — and glitzy videos of new car models. But at the outset, Barra issued what could only be read as a sharp, irrevocable turning away from climate-change denialism and from the outgoing Trump administration’s fierce allegiance to the fossil fuel industry.
Citing GM’s pioneering work on EVs, beginning twenty years ago with the Chevrolet Bolt, Barra boasted of her company’s progress but lamented that global penetration of electrified vehicles is only three percent.
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“At GM, after one of the most difficult years in [our] history, 2021 represents a turning point to electric vehicles and a net-zero carbon future. We have the technology, talent and ambition to lead the world into a new era.”
Mei Cai, a GM technical fellow and lab group manager, explained the most significant development toward what Barra called “an all-electric future.” It’s about how GM lab technicians have reformulated the chemistry of the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Traditionally, the three basic elements in these batteries are manganese, cobalt and nickel. Cai said that GM’s Ultium battery system reduces cobalt content by 70 percent by adding aluminum.
Cai noted that aluminum is both safer and less expensive. “This reduction in cost also addresses the challenges of sourcing sufficient cobalt to match demand,” said Cai. She said the change increases battery efficiency by 60 percent.
She went on to describe a simpler battery cell array designed and installed horizontally, adaptable to all vehicles in the GM product line. Its higher density increases power per-square-inch, said Cai. She added that modules of six, eight or ten battery units can be installed, depending on the size and configuration of a vehicle and can be double-stacked to a capacity of 24 units.
The result, Cai concluded, is a typical EV with 450 miles of range that’s 40 percent cheaper and 20 percent lighter in weight.
Michael Simcoe, GM’s vice president for global design, told the CES audience that this battery-cell advance will enable the introduction of 30 new EV models, with General Motors working to ensure that buyers will have easy access to a power source.
Travis Hester, chief electric vehicle officer, said,“Our goal is to install charging stations at home before you have your car.” He added that, in a pinch, one such charging station will be able to provide 90 miles of range on a ten-minute charge.
The planned installation of charging stations, besides just selling electric cars, hints strongly at the necessity that carmakers like General Motors must — as a matter of survival — become service companies. This revolution raised its head more clearly with the announcement that GM is pairing with FedEx Express in development of a delivery system called BrightDrop that will use an “electric pallet,” called EP1, designed to be rolled and fitted neatly into a GM EV600 electric delivery truck.
Richard Smith, executive vice president at FedEx, said, “We expect U.S. residential deliveries to reach 100 million packages a day by 2023.” He cited a BrightDrop EP1 test in which FedEx couriers “were able to effectively and safely handle 25 percent more packages per day.”
There was perhaps no better illustration at CES of GM’s electrification crusade that the revival of the Hummer. By going electric, GM has turned an obsolete gas-guzzling roadhog into a new-wave zero-emissions virtue signal, with an in-cab Bose sound system that replaces the roar of the engine with Chopin and Beyoncé.
The show, of course, also threw in the usual “concept” gadgets that provide eye-candy for engineers. Michael Simcoe, vice president of global design, provided an update on GM’s all-autonomous people carrier, a vehicle in the Cadillac Halo Portfolio, designed as “a social space for a group of friends or family to spend time together on their way to a destination.” True to that principle, the Halo is a rectangular minibus with edges rounded all around and a luxury interior that evokes a penthouse living room on wheels.
Simcoe’s piece de resistance, though, was an evocation of “The Jetsons,” a personal flying car. The Cadillac eVTOL is an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that looks something like a high-tech streamlined stapler. As noted by one non-GM observer, neither the minibus nor the Jetsonmobile are in production and “probably won’t be going into production anytime soon — or at all.”
CEO Mary Barra’s more down-to-earth outlook, which bookended the General Motors keynote, proved, in a CES context, more surprising than a self-driving car or a levitating commuter car. Her remarks, quoted here at length, were a remarkable departure from the technical focus and cautious conservatism typical of this annual gathering.
She began by citing the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed close to 400,000 Americans and forced CES out of its usual venues in Las Vegas. “In the midst of all this,” Barra went on, “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor became three more names on the growing list of Black Americans who have lost their lives based on the color of their skin. I expressed at that time my impatience and disgust with the fact that the nation seemed be placated by asking why this happened instead of what are we going to do to drive meaningful and deliberate change. I owe my role as CEO to GM’s legacy of inclusion. But we knew we could do better.”
She continued, “We announced our intention to be the most inclusive company in the world. We encouraged uncomfortable conversations with our own employees. We started an inclusion advisory board. We allocated $10 million for organizations fighting racism, bigotry, discrimination and hatred, which have no place in our world. We took action… This is what General Motors wants 2020 to be: a call to action. Because while we are weary and while there is hope, the battle isn’t over. The health crisis, racial injustice and climate change will persist. And so, we must persist.”