“All the cameras have to be covered, please,” asks the guard. And it’s not a formality: check twice and hit a quarter sticker red in the flash of the smartphone… just in case.
We are in the Wallace Battery Cell Innovation Center of General Motors, in Warren, in the state of Michigan, which was the automotive heart of the world. Things are happening here.
GM is a traditional American car manufacturer that for more than 90 years led sales in that country… until it lost the throne to Japan’s Toyota last year. In Detroit they blame the shortage of microchips for the pandemic, but swear that the numbers for the first half of the year already place them as leaders again. The company in Argentina is better known as Chevrolet, one of its emblematic brands, along with GMC, Buick and Cadillac.
So much secrecy and “blind” phones have an explanation: in this innovation center, the new batteries that will move GM models are made and tested. Not in the distant future: those who are taking to the streets in the US right now and those who will in the next few years. They are all part of the imminent and developing RRoad map 100% electric that it has for this industrial giant that was born in 1911 from an alliance between the Swiss racing driver Louis Chevrolet and an industrial entrepreneur named William Crapo Durant.
GM is no longer what it was, nor does it want to be. It is on its way to becoming the “new GM”, a process that will turn it upside down, like almost the entire auto industry in the world. “Electrification” is the key word.
In short, bye to the engines that run on fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel; and hello to electric motors that charge like a cell phone, plugging them into the wall. It sounds easy, but to do it you have to completely change the matrix of a business of more than a century, of an industry that is the flagship of the modern economy.
The reconversion is complete and the giant is working on battery platforms, new engines and 100% electric models, many of which are already on the streets and will arrive in Argentina shortly. For that, it will invest USD 35,000 million in the coming years. Not only that. It has strict deadlines: all their light cars must be electric by 2035 and five years later they promise that all their operations and portfolios will be carbon neutral. It also has an ambitious vision: “Zero accidents, zero emissions and zero traffic congestion”. For that the electric ones are central. In other words, General Motors has in its plans that within 13 years all the cars it sells in the country – and the world – will be electric.
It is clear that the “Tesla effect” fully impacted the entire automotive industry. Giants in the field –such as Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and the premium Mercedes Benz and Audi, to name just a few brands– are behind the steps of the startup of Elon Musk. But despite running “from behind”, several of the large companies in the market believe they are better positioned, with more “muscle” and experience, to do things better in the world of “green” and autonomous cars. That is the other key concept of the world on wheels that is just around the corner: self-driving vehicles.
According to International Energy Agency (IEA, an organization whose membership is only accessible to OECD countries), in 2021, 6.6 million electric vehicles were sold in the world, double the number of the previous year. In total there are about 16.5 million rolling around the world and this year, in the first quarter, 2 million units were sold, 75% more than in the same period in 2021. Almost 10% of global car sales are electric vehicles, four times the market share they had in 2019.
And Argentina? Plug-in cars sound like a utopia in a country without dollars in the Central Bank, complicated imports, limited electrical energy, without fast charging networks and extensive territory. But the wave will come, inevitably. For now, the sale of “green” cars is growing slowly. In the first half of the year it represented just 2%, about 3,400 hybrid (with 2 motors) or electric vehicles. If only the latter are taken, they were barely 82… 0.04% of the units sold. In Congress there is a bill to reach 100% electric mobility in 2040, to be debated.
Despite the difficulties, the automakers assure that the same thing will happen as with cell phones: rapid, explosive growth. And they claim incentives similar to those in other countries around the world: less taxes to buy an electric, that they do not pay license fees, that the large fleets of vehicles, such as those of the government, be electrified, and that the energy matrix is increasingly green. According to his calculations, a complete electrified park would consume only 3% of the total of that matrix. For now, GM will start selling its Bolt EUV, an electric SUV, next year in Argentina.
But back to Warren, Michigan. In the GM battery center, the objective is key, and it is part of the battle with the competition: to have the best recharging options for its electric vehicles.
GM promotes a battery development platform called Ultium and a modular development architecture that allows them, for example, the new Hummer EV to have an incredible 1,000 horsepower with a battery pack and three electric motors with which it achieves an acceleration from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour in just three seconds. We tested that car on the tracks out of the way from GM nearby, at their amazing Milford vehicle test center. The power is incredible and so is the comfort of the traditional military brand that had been discontinued and now returns as a sub-brand of GMC. The “green” Hummer is worth USD 110,000 in the US and its pre-sale sold out 100,000 units in a few hours.
“The battery has to last the same as in a combustion engine. We work on that all the time. That the battery charges quickly, without damaging the structure and without generating safety issues. Those of the first Volt model we launched on the market are already 12 years old and still have 80 percent capacity. the new ones are much better”, he told Infobae eric boor, senior leader GM’s Estes Engineering Center, where batteries are designed and tested.
Thus, GM wants to banish the idea that these packages they wear out and have to be replaced: the wear would be similar to that of fossil combustion engines. The company assures that those that are in their latest models already reach 400 kilometers of autonomy with a single overnight charge, something that puts them in the category of car comparable to the current ones that are seen on the street.
“Our electric future is now, for our entire product line. We have a modular strategy that other companies do not use. We are leading the transformation with a modular, flexible platform with lower costs that will continue to decline. It’s already 40 percent less complex to develop new models from scratch because the batteries are already made. Assembly lines are similar, but simpler. It is easier to design vehicles and they have a lot more space,” he added. Tim GreweCEO of GM’s Electrification Strategy.
For that they will reduce the cobalt of current batteries, which will use more other minerals such as lithium. GM has a global agreement with Livent, a lithium producer with a presence in Argentina. Weeks ago, during the trip of the former minister Silvina Batakis In the US, the automaker announced joint investments with Livent in the country that will allow them to use lithium hydroxide in Ultium batteries for an initial period of six years from 2025.
Regarding the local market, GM prefers not to give a number of how many electric cars they could sell in the first year since the arrival of the Bolt EUV in the country, but they know that it will be a market of “early adopters”, as he defined in dialogue with Infobae Santiago Chamorrothe regional president of General Motors for South America.
“In terms of electrics, we are 100% pioneers. We bet with new models that the volume will grow. I strongly believe in an electricity market in South America,” he added.
Cruise is a company dedicated to the manufacture of autonomous cars. It was born in 2013 and GM is its main shareholder, but it has other partners and investors such as Honda, Walmart and Microsoft. Their driverless vehicles – with cameras on the roof that allow driving – have been operating since this year as private transportation in San Francisco. These are electric Bolt models from General Motors and next year they will launch others, the Origin, futuristic “square” vehicles, without a nose and without a rear.
In addition, GM has its own semi-autonomous driving system for its cars. For now it works on the highways of the US and Canada, but the company assures that next year it will be available for all the streets of those countries. Infobae was able to test Super Cruise in Detroit and the driving experience is very amazing.
The car is aligned – for now it is available for Cadillac models, the high-end GM models – two buttons are pressed and that’s it. A green light on the steering wheel comes on and the vehicle drives itself: brakes, accelerates and changes lanes. The driver must always keep his vision on the road (a camera controls that this is the case and if this does not happen, he warns with vibrations in the seat and sound messages) and can take back control at any time.
Electric and autonomous is the key to the near future on four wheels. The brand of loud, powerful and soon-to-be-museum-piece gasoline engines from classic Chevys accelerates in that direction. No noise, no pollution… and no hands on the wheels.