CES Interview: GM's Lawrence Burns

gmcesfuelcell1.jpgOn the eve of General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner’s keynote address at CES, we got a chance to talk about the car company’s plans for green vehicle technology with Lawrence D. Burns, VP of R&D for GM’s research and development center.

Burns has worked with GM since 1969 and been in his current role for a decade. On the CES show floor Burns was flanked on one side by some of the 100 road-certified fuel-cell cars in GM’s Project Driveway, and on the other by the driverless Boss car that recently won the DARPA challenge (both of which GM’s CEO will likely highlight in a speech at CES.)

GM is eager to show that U.S. automakers aren’t behind their overseas counterparts when it comes to technology, though Burns admitted mistakes when it comes to GM’s early electric car, the EV-1. “We had an EV-1 — still the most energy-efficient car ever…We should have gone on from the EV-1 and we would have had a 10-year lead on the market,” he said.

There was that misstep, and the following competition — GM is actively avoiding the term “hybrid,” and Burns admitted that “Toyota owns the hybrid label.” Instead, GM calls its cars “electric vehicles,” and considers the onboard (gas-powered) powerplant a “range extender.” The company is coming back with a holistic strategy for greener cars that relies heavily on that electric technology.

gmcesdarpa1.jpgBut not just in the fuel system. Burns was quick to point out that much of the potential for fuel efficiency comes from other areas. One of these is safer driving. “The most significant fuel economy is cars that don’t crash,” said Burns. He guessed that a 4,000-pound car could weigh as little as 1,500 pounds if it wasn’t for safety concerns, and still have the same carrying capacity. So a car that can, through technology, avoid accidents might weigh significantly less in the future.

Technology can also help by changing the way we drive. For example, one of the main causes of highway congestion is the effect that stop-and-go driving has on traffic jams, which was analyzed in a December of 2007 study by University of Exeter mathematicians. Dr Gábor Orosz of the University of Exeter told science site physorg.com that “a slight braking from a driver who has identified a problem early will allow the traffic flow to remain smooth. Heavier braking, usually caused by a driver reacting late to a problem, can affect traffic flow for many miles.

Burns estimated that if only 20 percent of the cars on a highway had adaptive cruise control, that would smooth out this sort of congestion. And less congestion means less idling and less variance in driving speed. Indeed, according to GM, an internal study of various drivers using the same vehicle, GM employees varied their fuel efficiency from 13 MPG to 22 MPG depending on routes, speeds, and other factors. For example, one of GM’s V8 engines can use only half its eight cylinders when driving at 65 MPH; but all eight kick in at 75 MPH.

Decoupling the driving system from the fuel system is another big win. In a true hybrid car, the engine runs at varied speeds because it is directly moving the car. But when the gas engine is separate from the electrical drivetrain, two good things happen. First, the efficiency of the engine is far greater (because it can be optimized to run at a constant speed) while the car’s power is consistent throughout its speed range (because there’s no need for transmission.) And second, it’s easier to switch fuel sources.

“We need to move to other fuel sources,” he said. “The power grid has surplus power that equals 40% of the miles driven in the US.” In addition to plug-in vehicles, there are also hydrogen fuel cells and cellulosic ethanol, for which Burns has high hopes.

When it comes to automakers’ relationships to oil companies, Burns is fairly clear. “Do you think it makes us happy to scratch out a minimal profit while the oil companies get to make large profits?” he laughed. “If there’s a conspiracy going on, we’re getting the bad end of it.”

When Wagoner gives his speech at CES today, he’ll highlight the technology that can make Detroit green. We’ll need all the efficiency we can get. The US Department of Energy estimates that the economy will grow at a rate of 3-4 percent a year, with energy demand growing at 2 percent a year. In 25 years’ time, that compounds to 70% more energy needed.

Burns believes we can get there, but that no one technology will solve the problem. Instead, it will be a blend of the technologies GM is showing at CES: Better power systems, the use of alternate fuels, safer cars that weigh less, and improving the way people drive. “Maybe 40% of that can come from ethanol,” he estimates.

Burns said that the biggest misconception people have about car companies is “that [the companies] don’t want to make cars any more efficient, even though we’ve increased efficiency 110% since the 1970’s. But consumers chose to put that efficiency into more power and more acceleration. ”

Many of the technologies GM is showing can improve the efficiency of cars dramatically. But it’s going to take a change in consumer mindsets for that efficiency to take the form of reduced emissions and fuel consumption, rather than bigger, faster motors. “Now that oil is $100 a barrel,” concluded Burns, “consumers will have to make new choices about that efficiency.” Sure, along with the car companies.


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