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Cleantech and the Future of GM

Jon Lauckner, President GM Ventures, said that GM now has a straightforward vision, “Design, build and sell the world’s best vehicles.” I took notes as he gave his keynote speech at the Clean Tech Investors Conference and asked him about GM’s investment priorities. To achieve GM’s vision, focus is now placed on four strategies: (1) a culture that is more aggressive and flexible, (2) customer focus, (3) Team GM, and (4) technology.

Mr. Lauckner is focused on investing in innovative and early stage companies. He has been busy since GM Ventures was established last June and he was promoted from head of GM global product planning. GM Ventures has invested in Bright Automotive, which has designed an advanced plug-in hybrid delivery van with much greater cargo space than Ford’s Transit Connect Electric. GM has invested in two advanced next generation biofuel corporations – Mascoma and Coskata. Given the success of the Amyris IPO, these investments could should a high return for GM.

GM has the potential to drive down lithium battery cost and weight with its strategic partner LG Chem, supplier for the Volt. The two corporations recently licensed cathode technology from Argonne National Lab that can lead to better energy density and make future cars like the Chevrolet Volt even more cost effective.

GM is also looking beyond today’s lithium technology. GM Ventures has invested in SAKTI3, which has developed a rechargeable solid-state battery with the potential to lower the cost of manufacturing batteries.

All of these innovators are creating offerings that could accelerate GM offering a wider range of vehicles, lower the carbon footprint of GM vehicles, and make electric cars less expensive than gasoline powered in this decade. So far, all of these innovators are U.S. based and already creating hundreds of new jobs. GM is open to investing globally and often partners with venture capitalists such as Khosla Ventures, corporate private equity such as Itochu Technology Ventures, and public economic development such as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The technology will not necessarily become a GM offering, but that is a potential value-added in partnering with GM Ventures. For example, Powermat is not only receiving a $5 million investment from GM Ventures, Powermat will be offered in many 2012 GM cars. Powermat solves that problem of trying to keep many mobile electronic devices charged. Forget using the cigarette lighter. Powermat’s technology allows electronic devices – smart phones, MP3 players and gaming devices – to be charged inductively by just placing them on the Powermat.

What will be the next General Motors investment? Speaking to over 400 executives at the Clean-Tech Investor Summit,  co-produced by International Business Forum and Clean Edge with CleantechBlog as a media sponsor, Jon Lauckner said that GM Ventures is looking for promising innovation in these areas:

Automotive Cleantech

  • EV
  • Fuel cell
  • Charging
  • Emission controls
  • Motors
  • Smart grid
  • Energy efficiency for vehicles
  • Biofuels

Infotainment

  • Vehicle HMI
  • Voice recognition technologies
  • In-vehicle advertising
  • Cloud services
  • Personal device integration

Smart Materials

  • Cost
  • Mass
  • Lightweight materials
  • Eco-friendly materials

Automotive-Related Technologies

  • Innovations for unmet consumer needs
  • Advanced sensors for autonomous driving
  • Safety features

Value Chain / Business Model

  • New automotive business models
  • Leverage GM technology and assets for upstream and downstream revenue

I asked Jon Lauckner about alternatives to rare earth elements. Currently, the motors in electric cars and hybrids are permanent magnet motors. To improve weight, efficiency and heat resistance, rare earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium are used in these permanent magnets. Such rare earths are currently mined in China, but the big money is not in the mining, it is in the final products. China is restricting rare earth exports, and giving priority to using rare earths in its own manufacturing of turbines and motors for products ranging from military systems to high-speed rail to electric cars.

Toyota Motors is developing inductive car motors that do not use rare earths. Although Lauckner was carefully non-committal about whether GM is also working on inductive automotive electric motors, he did say that he would be “very interested” in such motors requiring no rare earths. Smart materials, nanotechnology, and advanced powertrain components are all strategic to the future of GM.

In one decade, transportation will be very different from today. With GM Ventures, General Motors is positioned to invest, integrate, and deliver to global customers better cars and services that include innovations in cleantech, infotainment, materials, autonomous driving, and new business models.

Delivery and Service Vans Plug-in

By John Addison (10/5/09). A growing number are eager to buy plug-in hybrids from Toyota, Chevy, Ford, Fisker, and others that are completing new manufacturing for 2010 orders and serious competition in 2011. Oil prices have doubled from their low this year. People are planning to save on fuel for years, by using more inexpensive electricity and less gasoline.

Fuel costs millions for the delivery and service fleets that bring us our mail and goods and keep our cities running. About one million new vans are purchased annually in North America.

For years, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has piloted electric vehicles in its fleet of over 200,000 delivery vehicles. Azure created custom electric vehicles for the post office. Encouraged, the USPS has ordered 165 of the new plug-in hybrid Chrysler Town & Country Minivans for delivery use. Next year, these Chrysler vans will be available for commercial sale by everyone from small businesses to active soccer families.

Ford is starting to take orders from municipalities and other government agencies that will use the new Transit Connect light-duty van in a variety of applications from city maintenance to on-demand transit. Deliveries of these electric vehicles, made for Ford by Smith Electric Vehicles, will start in 2010. Transit Connect may also do well with small businesses and local delivery fleets. Clean Fleet Ford Report

South Coast Air Quality Management District has helped fleets achieve significant mileage gains with Sprinter Vans converted to be plug-in hybrid.

The electric utilities that will help power these plug-ins often have thousands of vehicles in their fleet. Utilities have turned to companies like Eaton to double the mileage of their trouble trucks with hybrid and plug-in hybrid drive systems. Ford F550s were first converted into hybrids and now into plug-in hybrid trouble trucks. In addition to using less diesel fuel, these trucks can run all their accessories electrically. Previously, they had to idle the truck engine for hours to host a repair technician into the air, to run repair equipment, and all auxiliaries. Clean Fleet PG&E Report

The Eaton hybrid-electric drive system will be used in 138 FedEx delivery vans. In New York alone, FedEx deployed 48 E700 Eaton hybrids. Clean Fleet FedEx Report Local delivery vans can particularly benefit in fuel savings by capturing braking energy with frequent stops, by establishing a central charging infrastructure, and by having mid-day opportunities for recharging in between morning pick-ups and afternoon deliveries.

Eaton Corporation’s truck and electrical businesses will support a $45.4 million grant to develop a fully integrated plug-in hybrid systems for Class 2 to 5 vehicles, weighing up to 19,500 pounds. A demonstration fleet of 378 plug-in hybrid trucks and shuttle buses will be put into use. Green Car Congress

Plug-in vans and trucks can have a major impact on U.S. oil dependency. Federal, state, and local fleets own 4 million vehicles. Corporations have bigger total fleets. There is great interest in extending the electric-range of vehicles. Most attention has been placed on battery improvements. A more practical way to extend range is to make vehicles more aerodynamic and lighter.

Bright Automotive wants to make 50,000 plug-in hybrid vans per year that are built from the ground-up to deliver 100 mpg in a van that can carry 180 cubic feet of cargo. A typical van carrying such load might achieve 15 mpg. This spin-off of the Rocky Mountain Institute has major strategic partners including Alcoa, Johnson-Controls, and Google. The Bright IDEA van weighs only 3,200 pounds, less than a Prius, and can go 30 miles on battery power alone. It will be stronger than steel, yet built with light-weight aluminum and composite material like the Tesla. With a sub-.3 drag coefficient, the van only needs a 10 kWh lithium battery pack. In demanding delivery applications, each Bright IDEA could save $6,000 per year in fuel.

Bright is currently doing a project for the U.S. Department of Defense that involves converting a VW Transporter to be a plug-in hybrid. Bright hopes to secure a federal loan to build a manufacturing plant in Indiana to build the new light aerodynamic vans in volume.

Fleets are taking the lead in energy security and reduced emissions with fleets of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. He is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet – now selling at Amazon and other booksellers.