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Exclusive interview Joe LoGrasso, manager, GM Global Battery Systems Engineering

In the run-up to the AABC 2012 in Orlando, Florida, from 6-10 February, had opportunity to talk to Joe LoGrasso, Manager, GM Global Battery Systems Engineering. He is chairing a conference session at AABC on "Battery Safety and Durability Validation in Long-Life Applications". Joe is responsible for strategic development of new battery energy storage systems at General Motors as part of GM's Global Product Development team in Warren, Michigan. 2011 was predicted as year of the breakthrough for electric vehicles. How would you evaluate this statement now that we arrive at the end of 2011?

Joe LoGrasso: Clearly some new products entered the market in 2011 and more are on the way in 2012. We're proud that the Chevrolet Volt has won more than 30 awards in the U.S. and other markets and has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings from its customers and a Recommended Buy from Consumer Reports. The Volt continues to be a breakthrough vehicle. The Financial Time wrote that GM plans on producing 60,000 Volts next year. Is this realistic?

Joe: The Volt had its best sales month to date in December 2011 with 1,529 units sold. The total number of Volts sold to date is around 8,000 in the U.S. and close to 300 in Canada. The industry is going to learn a lot about the market potential for electric vehicles and extended range EVs like Volt in 2012. However as the market develops, we will continue to focus on the task of building consumer demand for this new and innovative vehicle. What have so far been your experiences with the sold Volts? What are the strong points, what are the weaknesses in terms of encountered problems?

Joe: The Volt has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings from its customers. We are really pleased. It has in fact been cited in many places including consumers' reports.

I encourage you to visit and view the owner stories for direct customer feedback. There has been quite some excitement about the Volt's battery pack igniting in crash tests carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Can you shortly tell us what happened and how GM has reacted?

Joe: NHTSA raised a concern about possible electrical fires hours post crash (this means days or weeks after an extreme crash). We are taking every precaution to ensure our customers' peace of mind and satisfaction. There have been no reports of any electrical fires following a collision involving a customer's vehicle.

GM will conduct a Customer Satisfaction Program and make modifications to further protect the Volt battery from the possibility of an electrical fire occurring days or weeks after a severe side crash. Modifications will include:
  • strengthening an existing portion of the Volt's vehicle safety structure that protects the battery pack to help prevent potential intrusions in a severe side collision;
  • adding a sensor in the reservoir of the battery coolant system to monitor coolant levels;
  • adding a tamper resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to help prevent potential coolant overfill;

These steps are intended to go the extra mile to ensure customers' peace of mind and to solve the problems identified by NHTSA in its crash test. Driver behaviour has an important impact on the range of full electric vehicles. How important a role does driver behaviour play for a range-extended vehicle like the Volt and how do you prepare the customer?

Joe: You are absolutely right. Driver behavior in addition to such things as temperature and terrain that drivers experience can have an impact on overall range in electric vehicles. In the case of range-extended vehicles like the Volt this impact is minimized and there are in fact some very specific things drivers can do to maximize the charge depleting mode (or electric only) driving operation of the Volt. I encourage you to view this video that provides driving tips. Did the evolvement of the EV sector over the last 12 months match GM's expectations? Were there any surprising or unforeseen developments?

Joe: We do see the sector evolving but exact market volumes are difficult to forecast. In addition to the Volt and Ampera launches we are also planning the launch of future Electric Vehicle models in the next 12 months, beginning with the Chevrolet Spark EV. Does GM look beyond lithium-ion?

Joe: As part of our development we evaluate all chemistries, including lithium-ion. This also includes materials and energy storage technologies that go beyond current lithium-ion. Future vehicle needs and the appropriate advancement of these technologies will help us determine the appropriate window of new technology insertion as we plan new electric vehicles. What kind of thermal management and battery management system does GM favor?

Joe: There are different needs for different battery system applications. GM offers vehicles that use forced cabin air to thermally manage the batteries, such as our Buick Lacrosse eAssist. As for our extended range EVs, the Volt and Ampera use a liquid thermal management system. Which country would you for the moment consider to be the most effective in promoting electric mobility? And in which market do you expect the Volt to take off the strongest? Also, under which brand will you enter the different markets? In Australia, for example, we were reading about the Holden Volt 2012....

Joe: EV technology appears to be ideal for smaller vehicles used at lower speeds for short distances and may play an important role with our global customers in certain markets.
In emerging markets and urban areas, full battery electric vehicles could be the most ideal solution to the urban congestion problems. I do not know specifically under what specific name plates our future global products will enter the market beyond those announced. If you would be asked to formulate a global action plan for a rapid introduction of electric vehicles, what would be your top 3 points on the agenda?

Joe: While that is a larger question, I think one of the most critical needs is to focus on cost reduction opportunities for electrification components, including batteries which are part of my specific focus. This will be critical to being able to expand market penetration of profitable vehicles. What are your expectations for the AABC in Florida from 6-10 February? What makes this event stand out amongst others?

Joe: Battery and EV conferences are a good opportunity for networking and also to hear some of the latest advancements and topics of interest in advanced batteries. This forum has been one of the best attended by both automakers and battery industry suppliers of the ones I've been to. Many thanks, Joe, and we wish you a fruitful conference!