GM Plots an EV Comeback Inside Its Secretive Battery Lab

WARREN, Michigan – If General Motors is to successfully challenge Tesla for supremacy in EVs, the battle starts with better battery technology. Research, prototyping, and testing take place here at the company’s Global Battery Systems Lab 20 miles north of Detroit. They’ll go into new GM EVs late this year or in 2021, and the batteries will have their own name: Ultium.

“We’re trying to wear out the [test] batteries,” says Douglas Drauch, lead engineer at the battery lab. GM has the largest battery test lab of any automaker anywhere. This one has been expanded to 100,000 square feet – the size of a Home Depot or a big Walmart – inside the Estes Engineering Center on the 710-acre GM Technical Center, which has 38 buildings. Designed in the 1950s by architect Eero Saarinen, most visitors won’t get past the outer lobbies. From time to time, GM brings in editors and analysts, as long as they leave their cameras behind. (The photos here are GM’s.)

The cold chamber at the GM Battery Lab in Warren, Michigan, 20 miles north of Detroit.

Shakers and Environmental Chambers

GM is working with LG Chem on a new generation of lithium-ion batteries and housings, with new battery modules. The first EV battery design, circa 2010 was a T-shape used in the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. It took up the space between the seats that would have been the transmission tunnel, as well as under the back seat.

With the Chevrolet Bolt EV, GM switched to a rectangular flat pack, or slice, that formed the bottom of the car (suitably protected from road hazards), with a bump that fit under the rear seat. Internally it’s called BEV2 (main photo) and has 288 cells. On the Bolt EV, it had an EPA range of 238 miles for the 2017-2019 models; tweaks got it up to 259 miles for the 2020 Bolt. The next-generation Bolt is now slated for introduction in 2021 as a 2022 model.

GM’s new BEV3, or Ultium, battery. It can be sized from 50 to 200 kWh. GM says the JV with LG Chem will drive the cost below $100/kWh

Next-Gen Battery: Ultium

Last month, GM CEO Mary Barra unveiled the latest lithium-ion battery technology, gave it a name, and said it will use a proprietary low-cobalt-content lithium-ion chemistry. “Our team accepted the challenge to transform product development at GM and position our company for an all-electric future,” Barra said. “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.”

GM president Mark Reuss added, “Thousands of GM scientists, engineers and designers are working to execute a historic reinvention of the company. They are on the cusp of delivering a profitable EV business that can satisfy millions of customers.” And GM in a statement said, “The strategy [allows GM] to grow the company’s electric vehicle (EV) sales quickly, efficiently and profitably. … They will allow the company to compete for nearly every customer in the market today, whether they are looking for affordable transportation, a luxury experience, work trucks, or a high-performance machine.” (Talk about buzzword bingo day.)

The coming third-generation battery – Ultium / BEV3, the type now in testing – will also be a rectangular slice that can be wider and thinner for cars that won’t be as high as the Bolt EV. It will be modular, allowing six, eight, 10, 12, or 24 packs of pouch-type cells that can be packaged vertically or horizontally. Some BEV3 batteries will output 400 volts and support 150-kW DC fast charging. Larger 800-volt packs will use 350-kW chargers DC fast chargers. The DC fast chargers are for public stations; you’d need 10-20 times the power coming into a typical residence to make fast charging work in your own garage. For home use, you’d want a 240-volt Level 2 charger ($400-$600 plus installation); as a fallback, a 120-volt outlet would recharge, but it might take a day.

GM engineers with a battery pack for the Chevrolet Volt, circa 2010.

Shakers and Environmental Chambers

The test equipment, for the most part, looks non-descript: big blue metal cabinets with conduits for power or data cables stretching up to the ceiling.

The battery lab has 19 600-kilowatt (600,000 watts each) battery cyclers programmed to simulate city and highway driving, waiting in traffic on hot days, regenerating power going down hills or braking, and dealing with potential power surges back into the battery under panic braking or an instantaneous high-draw if a slipping tire on ice suddenly finds traction on a dry patch. If all the battery cyclers are in use, they can draw as much power as all the residents of Warren, population 135,000.

There are other cabinets set up as environmental chambers that can place the batteries in the desert, an arctic city (temps can be set as low as minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit), or a monsoon climate.

Finally, there are shaker tables that emulate the increasingly rough roads of US highway infrastructure, or off-road trails.

There’s also testing on how the batteries perform in a second life: If they’re too worn to be used in a car, they’re still good enough to provide backup power in a home or business.

A prototype Cadillac EV, the Lyric, that will implement GM’s new electrical-vehicle architecture. GM also announced a collaboration with EVgo, ChargePoint, and Greenlots “to establish the largest collective EV-charging network in the United States with access to more than 31,000 charging ports.” It was to have been unveiled April 2; that was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Manufacturing in Lordstown, Hamtramck

Every US-flagged automaker takes flack from politicians and unions about closed plants and laid-off workers. In GM’s case, EV and battery manufacturing will bring GM back to one factory town and repurpose an existing plant.

GM had closed the Lordstown, Ohio, plant that had produced the now-defunct Chevrolet Cruze and employed 4,000 workers. It was sold to Lordstown Motors, a startup that plans to build EVs there, but with fewer workers. President Trump had criticized GM for closing it. Separately, GM is converting the Hamtramck plant on the border of Detroit to an EV-only assembly facility. It had been building the Chevrolet Impala, arguably the best big sedan GM ever built, but sedans are out of favor, the aging Impala was losing sales, and production is ending.

In their best years, neither the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid nor the Bolt EV topped 25,000 sales. Tesla Model S sold more than 50,000 units in its first three years. The Model 3 averaged 150,000 sales for the last two years.

Playing Catch-Up to the Mouse That Roared

Reality check time: General Motors was the world’s largest automaker for much of the 20th century. At the peak of its market dominance, in 1962, GM had 51 percent of the US market. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it was just 17 percent in 2019. On EVs, the General was clobbered by Tesla in the last decade. As the chart above shows, neither the Volt plug-in hybrid nor the all-electric Bolt EV ever sold more than 25,000 units a year, while every year since 2015 there’s been a Tesla model with at least 50,000 sales. Last year, the midsize Model 3 outsold the Bolt EV 10 to one.

This just shows how the market for electrified vehicles – PHEVs and EVs, but not hybrids – while small at less than 2 percent of sales, has gone Tesla’s way. Thus the need for GM to play catch-up, including – especially – on battery technology. GM says the Ultium batteries and vehicle architectures will allow ranges up to 400 miles, 0-60 mph acceleration as low as 3.0 seconds, and motor placement for front-drive, rear-drive, all-wheel-drive, or performance all-wheel-drive architectures. GM says it plans 19 battery/drive unit configurations initially; in comparison, it has 550 combustion engine powertrain configurations now.

The grille of the GMC Hummer EV, slated to be announced this year and go on sale in 2021 as a 2022 model with up to three motors and 1,000 hp.

Race to Deliver the First Electric Pickup

One of the reasons GM’s battery lab is so important is GM would like to be first, best, or both with an electric pickup truck. GM has resurrected the nameplate of the earth-trampling, 10 mpg Hummer of the early 2000s. Now, it’s on an electric-only pickup truck under the GMC brand, with one to three motors and up to 1,000 hp. All dates are subject to change, but before the world changed in the wake of the coronavirus, it looked as if the Hummer was to be introduced this spring, and ship in 2021 as a 2022 model. In a February analyst meeting, GM president Mark Reuss hinted the Hummer could be the first to market.

Meanwhile, there are many others with plans for electric pickups, a market that currently has zero sales:

  • Tesla Cybertruck is best-known because it’s a Tesla, which is the gold standard for EVs that sell, and Tesla of late has been hitting planned ship dates. There’s talk that the wedge-shape design will need a redesign. Tesla said as much in an April 1 announcement, which was unsettling news: Was this an April Fools’ joke? Was a redesign necessary and Tesla was using the date as a double-fake? For sure, there will have to be some mods from the design unveiled last fall (the one where Elon Musk tossed a metal ball at the shatterproof and the window, of course, shattered) to meet bumper-impact regs around the world.
  • Rivan R1T is the pickup half of a startup venture (there’s also an R1S SUV) that is highly regarded, with a half-billion of Ford money invested and a management team that is young but normal (as opposed to some tech startups). Amazon and others have invested, too, and as of the beginning of 2020 Rivian had raised $2.2 billion with an estimated value of $5 billion-plus. Analysts believe Rivian will be a survivor, in part because it’s licensing its expertise to others, including Ford.
  • Ford F150 is the best-selling pickup truck, with the F Series closing in on 1 million sales a year. In 2018 Ford said it would bring 16 battery-electric vehicles (which could be hybrids) to market, starting with an all-electric crossover (the Mustang Mach-E). Ford initially planned a hybrid F150, but then last year said it would bring out an all-electric F150 in 2022.
  • Bollinger B2 has been self-financed by CEO Robert Bollinger. The company moved from upstate New York to Michigan and also plans an SUV, with initial deliveries said to be in 2021. They’ll be priced at about $125,000. Prototypes have been at auto shows for a year now.
  • Nikola Badger was announced in February, but as a concept, meaning one or two stages removed from production. The specs (sometimes specs can be pronounced “promises”) call for 300 miles on battery, 600 miles total including a hydrogen fuel cell, a supercapacitor for launch assist, and the ability to climb a 50-degree grade (for the few drivers who wouldn’t panic trying it). Nikola is better known for the hydrogen fuel cell sleeper semi-truck under development.
  • Lordstown (Ohio) Motors Endurance has been shown on video but not yet announced; that was scheduled for the now-canceled North American (Detroit) International Auto Show in June.

A Chevrolet Bolt EV cutaway with the current BEV2 battery design. The next-gen Bolt has been reset for a 2021 announcement and ship date.

How Big Will the EV Market Be?

In 2019, about 3 million pickups were sold out of 17 million vehicles. Nobody knows the size of the EV pickup market initially, or how badly EV range suffers under a heavy load (Tesla owners have known range tanks when a Model S or Model X tows a trailer), or if buyers are willing to pay extra to get the large batteries that allow 300 t0 400 miles of range on pickups.

As for the market for all plug-in vehicles – battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids – the final 2019 US sales numbers for light vehicles amount to combustion-engine-only cars, 98.1 percent of the market, BEVs and PHEVs 1.9 percent.

There is some hope – among environmentalists, at least – that Americans, in the wake of the coronavirus slowdown, will appreciate the cleaner skies in major cities and adopt plug-in vehicles to keep the air clear and clean. GM’s battery R&D is for its worldwide markets, not just the US, and it may find more traction outside the US. Depending on how many people and businesses have money to spend on new cars in the next year.

At the Ultium rollout, GM cited forecasters who called for EV volumes to double between 2025 and 2030 to 3 million units annually – one in six vehicles sold – and added its belief the numbers could be “materially higher.”

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