GM scrambles to show its new EV emphasis
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Mar 13, 2020
Michael Bettencourt

COVID-19 concerns pushed back the electric Cadillac Lyriq SUV debut, but new Ultium-branded batteries underscore that the majority of GM’s R&D is now EV-related

Michael Heifler, Director, Investor Relations at General Motors

COVID-19 concerns pushed back the electric Cadillac Lyriq SUV debut, but new Ultium-branded batteries underscore that the majority of GM’s R&D is now EV-related

The photos and details of GM’s increasingly electric future on wheels were supposed to be laid out for all to see on April 2nd, when Cadillac planned to release photos and details of the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq all-electric SUV. That would have been a month after GM’s most senior leaders provided a sneak peek of 10 planned EV models to camera-less media at the automaker’s remarkable “EV Day” event on March 4th. The Lyriq would have been the first of those 10 to make a formal debut.

But a few days later came word the planned April 2nd Cadillac event was cancelled due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus. The New York International Auto Show, in which the Lyriq and all the advanced battery technology it showcases was supposed to be shown to the public for the first time, was similarly postponed to late August.

Whether it’s the electric Cadillac Lyriq SUV or the Super Bowl-teased GMC Hummer EV, whose debut is still planned for May 20th that gives the public its first full view of GM’s family of planned EV models, the most significant news coming out of GM this month was the less-sexy new electric-vehicle batteries and architecture underpinning all of them.

GM dubs these its Ultium batteries – and the scope of its investments in the vehicles, battery modules and facilities surrounding the entire Ultium powertrain may be as important as the EVs themselves.

GM says 60 plus percent of its work now is on EVs

GM presented those vehicles in the famed design dome at its Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. There, full-size mockups and prototypes of future products are displayed, debated and approved or rejected by executives many years before they hit dealer showrooms.

Just a few years ago, GM president Mark Reuss said, electric vehicles made up only 20 percent of the concepts shown there.

“Today, 60-plus percent of the work here is on EVs,” said Reuss.

GM CEO Mary Barra highlighted more than US$20 billion in planned EV investments between 2020 and 2025, and the entire event was clearly meant to communicate and detail its increased commitment to EVs to employees, dealers, investors and analysts over the course of an EV-heavy week of planned events.

“We have the ability – and the responsibility – to create a cleaner planet,” said Barra, with 20 new EVs on track to debut globally by 2023.

Awareness of these plans is clearly extra-important for the company that still only has one full battery-electric offering in its lineup, with no new GM EV models planned to arrive to market for another year or so. Meanwhile, an upstart California-based rival is hitting the market with its fourth EV this month – the Tesla Model Y crossover utility vehicle – in the hottest vehicle market segment right now.

Granted, GM’s long-range BEV offering is a more electrified offering than those of other mainstream automakers in North America right now. Rivals Ford and FCA each offer just a single plug-in hybrid vehicle for 2020, though more PHEVs are planned to arrive this year for 2021.

Ultium batteries hold cost savings, performance and range

Unlike the Bolt EV, which runs on GM’s advanced but not profitable second generation (BEV II) vehicle architecture, the Ultium batteries have been designed for large-scale manufacturing. In a return to traditional automotive practice, they will enter the market in higher-priced vehicles that sell in lower volumes. This will allow a GM joint venture with LG Chem to produce battery cells – using a low-cobalt chemistry – to drive cell costs below $100/kWh eventually, GM said, without providing a timeline. A chart which briefly flashed up on a screen suggested that wouldn’t happen before the mid-to late 2020s.

Ongoing technological and manufacturing advancements will drive costs even lower, allowing the new BEV3 platform to be profitable within the first generation of production, predicted CEO Barra.

The Gen II 66kWh batteries going into the Bolt
The Gen II 66kWh batteries being installed into the Chevrolet Bolt EV at GM’s Lake Orion Assembly plant. Photo: Michael Bettencourt

“What we have done is build a multi-brand, multi-segment EV strategy with economies of scale that rival our full-size truck business, with much less complexity and even more flexibility,” said Barra.

Those new Ultium batteries use large-format, pouch-style cells that can be stacked vertically or horizontally inside the pack. That allows engineers to optimize energy capacity and layout for each vehicle – no more bulky battery bulges that compromised BEV designs adapted from internal-combustion-engine vehicles. 

The Ultium battery sizes range from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, which could enable a GM-estimated range up to 400 miles (640 km) or more on a full charge. Some will offer acceleration from 0 to 96 km/h in as little as three seconds, GM announced – an exotic car-like figure. There will be front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive versions, as well as performance AWD models.

Of course, the Ultium-powered EVs are designed for Level 2 and SAE Combo DC fast charging. Most will have 400-volt battery packs and up to 200kW fast-charging capability, while the larger trucks and SUVs will feature 800-volt battery packs and up to 350 kW fast-charging capability.

The company predicts it will sell 1 million EVs by 2025, globally, without breaking out where those sales will occur. Given current trends, it seems likely a large part of those numbers will be in Europe and China, given the greater legislative incentives – and need – to sell vehicles there to meet increasingly stringent emission limits and ZEV mandates.

Complete presentation available to watch online

The complete EV day presentation is available to watch on GM’s investor site here, with carefully scripted presentations on GM’s EV strategy, and the Ultium battery system. It even includes a short Q&A session with some sceptical reporters who had heard previous large-scale EV plans from GM. Those include the previous EV1 and Volt concepts that were unveiled, but never became high-volume products.

Having been to some of those earlier GM EV previews, this one felt very different. This one was not simply about one advanced vehicle, but an entire technology and company shift.

The cameras that livestreamed EV Day for the global audience never deviated from the executives or the battery technology being showcased, surely frustrating viewers anxious to see the vehicles executives sometimes pointed to in their remarks.

Still, no matter when the vehicles using Ultium technology are unveiled, the true star of GM’s future plans will be hidden underneath the floor of its many upcoming EVs.

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