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Chicago Auto Show: Larry Burns Interview

by Worldchanging Chicago local editor, Patrick Rollens

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As part of an effort to reach out to new media, General Motors invited the Worldchanging Chicago team to attend the Chicago Auto Show as their special guests last week. We saw it as an important opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with GM about crucial issues: global market demand, sustainability and alternative energy, to name a few. Worldchanging writers Jacob Wheeler, Megan Milliken and Antonio Garcia all plan to offer their unique perspectives on the Chicago Auto Show, and we wanted to begin our feature package with this interview with Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research & development and planning.

At GM, Burns is tasked with taking the long view: envisioning and strategizing for an automobile market that's often decades away. He was the driving force behind the Chevrolet Volt, an electric plug-in concept car showcased at the auto show, and he holds advanced degrees in public policy, mechanical engineering and transportation systems.

Worldchanging: Last night I was speaking with John [Larson] from Pontiac about how GM is more than willing to respond to what the market wants. They’re willing to give people what they want, whether that's hybrids or electric cars. How, in that case, could you lead the market versus responding to the market?

Larry Burns: Let me give you just a little bit of background because I think it’s relevant to my answer, and I think it’s relevant to what you’re trying to do. Today there’s over 6 billion people in world, and there’s 850 million cars and trucks, so that means only 12 percent of the world’s population own a car or truck. When you look at automobiles in emerging markets – China, India, Brazil, Russia, you name it – there seems to be this universal aspiration on the part of people for the freedom that they get from having personal transportation.

So if you think we’ve got issues on sustainability today with just 12 percent of the world’s population owning a car, given the emergence of those markets and the speed at which they’re growing, we’re going to have it much more severely unless we can come up with solutions. Ninety-eight percent of the energy used to automobile transportation comes from petroleum, and what we have to do is find ways to diversify that energy. That’s not a good business position to be in. So my answer to you is very much a business-driven answer, because we want to grow our business, but we have to grow it sustainably. Because the issues of energy or environment or safety or congestion could cap the growth of the auto industry, we believe technology truly can step up to this challenge. Look at the iPod phenomenon, for example.

Worldchanging: That’s a good one.

Larry Burns: Here’s someone that led the market and absolutely disrupted conventional entertainment systems. Take a home entertainment system, for example: speakers in each room and an amplifier. That’s pretty expensive stuff, and now you can just buy an iPod and a little iPod speaker system and put one in each room and you’re off and running. They led the market. We tend to think about this in terms of the strategy of “do unto to yourself before others do unto you.?

The only way you can really do that is to get out in front – but you’ve got to get out in front with a high-volume solution. With 850 million cars and trucks in the world today, going on 1.1 billion by the year 2020, if you park those cars end to end and wrap that traffic line around the planet, it would go around 125 times, to give you a visual sense of that. So we need to get to a high-volume solution. Something that’s nice technology but too costly for the masses isn’t going to solve this problem. So getting out in front of the market has to be getting out in front of the market with affordable technology. That really sells it. That’s why we’re so interested in hydrogen fuel cells and why we’re so interested in the E-flex concept and the potential of advanced batteries. It lets us diversify the energy for our product, because hydrogen can be made from so many different pathways, like renewable and biological sources, so everything we’re doing to get ethanol infrastructure in the US, put a couple more steps in the refining process and you’ve got hydrogen. It’s a very simple vehicle, that’s why it promises to be affordable. It has 1/10th as many moving parts in the propulsion system as an internal combustion engine.

Worldchanging: I saw that in the Volt upstairs.

Larry Burns: When you look at that, [simple] usually means lower cost, lower costs means more people can afford it. The electric drive is very exciting; it gives you your torque. You get your highest torque at 1 RPM. Things that excite people about cars are what they look like, their driving performance, their affordability and their safety, and very importantly now their environmental and energy efficiency aspects. So yeah: we’ve got to get out in front. We have to get out in front with technology solutions that are meaningful in terms of the ability to get the high-volume solutions to really fix these problems. We didn’t just do the Volt concept, we didn’t just think of E-flex, we’re also doing the production engineering on E-flex.

Worldchanging: Is the Volt a stepping stone to something that will be high-volume and affordable?

Absolutely, and here’s why. The electric motor that’s in [the Volt] is the same one that’s one our fuel cell vehicles. The controls and power electronics are the same. The physical package, the metal parts that make the chassis and the body will all be taken from a very high volume GM platform that we sell all over the world to one of the largest segments in the world. I’m not at liberty to tell you exactly what that is right now, but because that’s being sold in the millions worldwide, we’ve got the scale economy in all these parts, and we’ve engineered it so that battery and that electric drive and that engine generator can fit into that, and we’ve also engineered it so the fuel cell and the hydrogen storage can fit into it. So you can put both of these technology paths in the same physical set of parts. And depending on where you are in the world, you can get the scale economy going.

Worldchanging: Yeah, of course.

Larry Burns: In the Volt, those liquid fuel tanks can have biodiesel or ethanol in them. So now you really get the green, and that’s the real key. And so yeah, we started production engineering on it, so I think that tells you how serious we are about getting on with this. Now: is the battery ready? Not yet. Does the battery cell have chemistry that looks encouraging? Absolutely. But you’ve got to work from that individual cell to an entire battery pack in the automobile and finish that engineering work. And we’re working with a lot of suppliers to get that to work. Governments can’t subsidize high volumes sales; they just don’t have the money. And business can’t do it or they’ll go out of business. So the only way you’re going to really solve these problems is to use technology to find an answer that people love they can afford to buy. And they’re buying it for reasons beyond just environmental reasons.

Worldchanging: What about increasing awareness like putting a miles-per-gallon gauge in every GM vehicle? I can’t imagine it would cost a whole lot more to do that.

Larry Burns: You raise a real important point there. If you need to do something right now – which I believe we do – there’s enormous opportunity in how people are driving, to make their vehicle much more efficient. Let me give you an example. We took a sample of exactly the same vehicle and then took about a hundred drivers – they happened to be GM employees – driving exactly the same vehicle: same engine, same everything. And then we measured their actual fuel economy. And in this particular vehicle is ranged from like 11 to 26 miles per gallon.

Worldchanging: What a spread!

Larry Burns: How can that be? The speed at which people travel, the roads that they’re traveling on, the load that they’re carrying, the heaviness of their feet, the stopping and starting and how aggressively they drive – all of those variables enter in to the actual efficiency of a vehicle in actual use. Are there things we can do to improve the efficiency of all of those 230 million cars and trucks in the US right now, today? Definitely. Maintain your tire pressure, drive the speed limit, improve the traffic flow – and we can do some of that with our OnStar technology. I think there’s enormous opportunity to have immediate impact on existing car performance. If you were going to do something on your blog [like] 10 recommendations to tease another mile per gallon out of your car in terms of how you drive it, I think that would be very helpful.

Worldchanging: You touched a little bit on hydrogen. It seems like on a federal level, as far as funding, a lot of money is going toward ethanol right now. That seems to be the buzzword, the cash cow. How has it been trying to develop hydrogen as an alternative fuel?

Larry Burns: We’re pretty encouraged by the budget support for hydrogen. President Bush has pledged $1.2 billion, and it looks like the ’07 budget is going to deliver the remaining part of that commitment. The reason I know that is because I’m part of USCAR, which is a consortium between the US auto companies and the government, and we try to do collaborative work together, so I look at that funding pretty carefully. So the hydrogen hasn’t been cut back at all after we’ve gone after ethanol, nor has the battery work, as we’ve gone after better batteries, impacted the hydrogen.

The ethanol is less an invention issue. People know how to make ethanol, they know how to grow crops; it’s an economics issue to get the stations out there. And part of the risk is if suddenly petroleum dropped to twenty bucks a barrel, and all those people who have invested their capital in ethanol plants could be left holding the bag. So we’ve got to get an energy policy that allows the alternative fuels to play on a level playing field long enough so that they can get past the tipping point and let actual market dynamics sustain them. For us, it’s a relatively small added cost to make a vehicle E-85 compatible. Compared to a hybrid, it’s just a drop in the bucket, so we’ve commited to doubling our E-85 production, along with Ford and Chrysler, and we’ll even go further than that if we see evidence that the infrastructure is evolving more quickly.

One thought I really want to reinforce: if you really want to make a difference you need to get to high volume. That’s the only way you can shift this situation. And you’re starting out with over 800 million cars and trucks in the world that all have internal combustion engines and all rely on petroleum, so the expectation on how quickly you can shift that whole thing over…that’s just a reality we have to deal with.

If we can get an affordable vehicle that could be a market dynamic for an alternative fuel, venture capitalists are going to go after it. They’re spending a lot of money on ethanol right now because they think there’s going to be money to be made. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart; they’re doing it because they know how to make money. That’s what got us excited about ethanol. When you see those kinds of people put their money in investment in infrastructure, they must believe a tipping point is around the corner.

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"We’re pretty encouraged by the budget support for hydrogen. President Bush has pledged $1.2 billion"

Why not spend 1.2 billion on developing the battery technology so that we can have choice in where the consumer acquires the electric energy to propel the car. If big auto companies concentrate on bio-diesel, alcohol, hydrogen etc. what's the common denominator? Distribution. Who will be the distributer? Oil companies. The GM Volt is the answer if the batteries have at least a 40 mile range at highway speeds and the system is pluggable with a petro/bio fuel internal combustion engine as a backup. If it's not pluggable or designed to use the engine heavily (engine runs to charge batteries before getting home) then it's a car to support oil companies and chain the consumer to them. The Volt (if delivered as promised) gives me the choice to purchase photovoltaic cells to charge the car from the sun, plug it into the power grid or anything else the comes along. Hydrogen supports big oil. Put the money in batteries/capacitors first, hydrogen last.

Posted by: Lyle L on 17 Feb 07

While I would welcome the volt being built I am highly skeptical. GM's history is not good, see "Who killed the electric car". Hydrogen is a dream that is still many years from practical and all this talk of needing new battery technology is a lie. The batteries needed to make this car work do exist. They are the NiMH batteries used in the Rav4EV and the later year EV1s that GM killed. Some lucky few are today driving their Rav4EVs, some with over 100,000 miles on them, and still getting over 100 miles per charge. This is an all electric vehicle with the original batteries, over 5 years old, and still working.

Until they actually produce it I can't help but see the volt as a diversion for a company that is anything but green.

Posted by: Leland on 17 Feb 07

GM knows all about the superior Nickel Metal Hydride ("NiMH") batteries that last longer than the life of the car -- even a Toyota.

GM used NiMH batteries on the 465 1999 EV1 that it was forced to produce (and would not sell) by California's Air Resources Board.

Yet GM is claiming that they have to do "research" on much more expensive, volatile, toxic and shorter-lasting Lithium batteries.

NiMH is cheaper, non-toxic, the standard for EVs, proven in millions of actual miles driven, virtually fault-free, powerful enough to push an EV to 80 mph very fast (faster than the VOLT) without help from ANY gas Internal Combustion engine, over 100 miles ALL-electric range, and plentiful, cheap and available.

Yet Larry Burns fails to explain why GM refuses to issue the Volt with NiMH batteries, and no reporter has the knowledge or gumption to brace GM on this: Hey, Larry, even cobasys says NiMH is here, now, and not. Why are you doin' research, dude??

Are you maybe not serious about this, just using it to deflect criticism from your PR disaster of killing the Electric car?

Not one reporter asks, and GM ducks the issue.

One is tempted to believe that Larry Burns is not telling the truth, and that GM is colluding to kill the Electric car all over again. "Wait for 2010...ooops, 2012, well, wait until people forget about it...". That's what it REALLY looks like, a big con job.


Posted by: Doug Korthof on 17 Feb 07

GM: Talk to us EV owners. My 1981 all-electric, developed under government contract uses lead-acid batteries. 40 miles? No problem.

Posted by: John Spradley on 18 Feb 07

Well, it would seem more of the same.

By definition of job title, Mr. Burns wants the reader to be thinking about the distant future, rather than the here and now.

There would seem to be a growing consensus that changes need to be made now, since business as usual and above all else will destroy the planet. There won't be any future.

I previously had credited Toyota with breaking from the pack and offering the Prius, but learned from Sherry Boschert, Author of "Plug-in Hybrids - the Cars that Will Recharge America" (and you can, too, watch the Quest video , that the Japanese thought that Detroit would abide by their commitment in the 1990s to build an 80 mpg vehicle, so undertook HEV development to be competitive.

GM fooled the Japanese (and us) with the EV1, so who can they fool with the Chevrolet Volt? Let's not tell the Chinese and maybe we actually will see plug-in hybrids in the near future.

Posted by: jcwinnie on 18 Feb 07

I am deeply concerned, as are others responding to this article, that GM/Chevy are being deceptive in announcing the Volt today while delaying its introduction until unproven Li battery technology has matured. As I learned years ago, this is banking on futures, akin to waiting for your ship to come in when there is no guarantee it will. GM should standardize on NiMH battery technology that is proven through hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of miles of road tests in the earlier GM EV-1 and the many Toyota RAV4 EV's still operational in California.

Apart from being concerned over GM's true intentions, I am saddened by two seriously flawed design choices in the Volt:

(1) that they have chosen not to employ regenerative braking to increase the mileage of the Volt, as is done so effectively in the Toyota Prius today; and

(2) that they have included a permanently fixed Sun/Moon roof that will cook the occupants in the summer and freeze them in the winter.

I could live with the first of these flaws, if only to buy an American hybrid. But the second is sufficiently serious that I would not purchase the car if all models retained that feature.

Posted by: Paul M. Rybski on 18 Feb 07

Why not release the Volt right now and just use the Nickel Metal Hydride battery which has already proven itself for millions of miles??? What's the game GM?

Posted by: Bluesky on 18 Feb 07

GM is shooting themselves in the foot with this one. With the Volt, everyone's calling their bluff. The EV technology is out there, GM designed it, perfected it, and the people want it. But, yet, they wonder why their sales continue to drop and why Toyota and Honda continue to dominate. Doesn't GM realize that if they would come out with a new EV vehicle like the EV1s, they would grab all of the Prius, Insight, and Civic customers?

GM is only helping to kill the earth than be the heros and save it.

Posted by: BORNGEARHEAD on 18 Feb 07

Let's give this thing a chance to manifest. Rejoice! Multi-fueled plug-in hybrids are coming. You purists - get solar panels, and charge-up your plug-ins. Or better yet, sell the high cost electric to the grid during the day, and charge-up on low cost electric at night... Direct Alcohol Fuel Cells are here and being improved. They will be used to cleanly convert ethanol to electricity - onboard. A suitable infrastructure for liquid ethanol is in place - but not for hydrogen. Hydrogen is bulky and has to be stored under high pressure. Ethanol does not. Just pour it into your existing tank...I'm talking 113 octane PURE ETHANOL that can even replace E-85. We are working to produce ethanol cheaper and more efficiently than it's now being made from corn. Even the experts are saying that ethanol could go as low as $1 a gallon, when made locally from organic waste and high volume cellulose crops. This is happening now. Many new biomass plants are scheduled to be built, and one is already operating. The big pay-off is from developing the technology to convert oil-rich algae into ethanol. So visualize your ideal hybrid plug-in with advanced batteries, a thin film solar-voltaic body, and an ethanol powered fuel cell. This is the transition vehicle that will soon free us from foreign oil - that is until "hydrogen on demand" is perfected in 15 to 20 years.

Posted by: faith healer on 18 Feb 07

"What's wrong with waiting?" GM and Chevron used that back in 2003, when they crushed the EV, claiming "hybrids now and wait for fuel cells". But there is no evidence that this time it's any different from the last time they lied.

There's no reason to wait for Chevron's cobasys, or Johnson Controls (which degraded Optimas since they bought them), to do "research" on Lithium. No reason, that is, except to make an excuse for why GM is not actually doing anything.

Regulators and the media stood back and let GM get away with its lies in 1994, 1996, 2000, when they claimed they "COULDN'T DO AN ELECTRIC CAR".

They lied; California FORCED GM to make an EV, and it workded great. The problem was, GM never agreed to make an honest attempt at a market; the 1996 MOA, oil guys sneered in the 2000 ZEV workshop, only agreed to put cars on the road for a certain period. So GM tricked regulators.

GM was allowed to get away with claiming, in 2003, "hybrids now, and wait for fuel cells".

Instead of an honest effort, GM did everything they could to sabotage EVs. Instead of an honest effort to improve hybrids and move to clean air, GM just used the fuel cells for a PR gimmick, and, without need or provocation, crushed "all" private leased EV1. Basically, for no reason other than that they "could do it". So GM was not being honest, not seriously moving toward a market in cleaner cars.

Why would anyone believe GM now, when they are admitting they can in fact do a plug-in EV, but "NOT JUST YET".


Oil companies are the drug lords selling the addictive drug, GM is just the low-level pusher selling the hardware needed to use that drug.

Posted by: Doug Korthof on 19 Feb 07

Unfortunately, the alternative fuel spin is part of the same old, delaying tactics. Yes, ethanol or biodiesel could help, and help much better as part of a generator set in a Big Electric - Little ICE serial hybrid.

But, that isn't what Detroit is trying to sell. They want us to think of electricity as alternative fuel rather than alternative propulsion. Why? $1200 a second profit by XOM is why. You can buy a lot of media making with that sort of obscene profit.

To repeat a recent statement by another plug-in advocate, let's get transportation switched over and continue to clean up the Grid.

Yes, with increasingly cost competitive solar (for those that appreciate reducing the impact of global heating).

With wind power, with geothermal, with efficient, clean biomass co-generation, with whatever could reduce emissions and improve national security.

But, don't trying selling me on ethanol or biodiesel as a suitable alternative. I know better.

Posted by: jcwinnie on 19 Feb 07

This site deals with the General Motors invited the Worldchanging Chicago team to attend the Chicago Auto Show as their special guests last week.

Posted by: sairajeswari on 8 Mar 07

This site deals with the General Motors invited the Worldchanging Chicago team to attend the Chicago Auto Show as their special guests last week.

Posted by: sairajeswari on 8 Mar 07



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