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Government Give-and-Take Needed to Make Advanced Technology Fly, GM Says

Direct injection is one of the keys in GM’s strategy to improve fleet fuel economy.

Governments can’t expect auto makers to meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards without a little give-and-take, says a key General Motors Corp. executive.

Bob Babik, GM’s director of vehicle emissions issues, says auto makers need a helping hand to guarantee the successful rollout of advanced, fuel-efficient technologies.

Consumers “definitely support cleaner and more efficient vehicles,” Babik writes in the first session of a GM-sponsored, ‘round-the-clock global online chat session to mark the auto maker’s centennial.

“But the key is offering technology at a cost-effective level so that the consumer values it and makes that choice,” Babik says. “This is why in the early years of a certain technology, GM supports government incentives when the technology may be more costly to help consumers make that choice.”

Auto makers were united in support of a sweeping energy bill passed last month that raises car and truck fuel economy to 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020. But the legislation also features a mandate to increase the use of renewable fuels and offers a $3,000 tax credit for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

GM has announced it will put a plug-in hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt, on the road by 2010. But Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner says in another online forum that its launch date is not firm because of the rapidly changing market.

Says Babik: “We have put out technologies such as flex-fuel vehicles where we have the cost low enough not to need consumer incentives, however with hybrids we will continue to work to lower the cost to make them more and more competitive.”

While the market penetration of higher-concentration ethanol fuel blends is far below that of flex-fuel vehicles, Babik stops short of blaming oil companies.

“With E85 availability, we need for all parties concerned, the producers, distributors, the government, to really focus on getting the fuel more available to provide consumers choice and to get the benefit of the fuels,” he says.

GM is making waves in the market currently with ’08-model hybrid versions of the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe – the industry’s first fullsize SUV HEVs.

“We have our work cut out for us, but we are ready to take on the challenge and work hard to attain the new national (fuel-economy) standards,” Babik writes.

In addition to HEVs, GM is looking at a number of other key technologies aimed at meeting the new CAFE bogey. But the solutions won’t come easy or cheaply, and the new mileage requirements could impact GM’s short-term product plans, top engineers warn in the GMnext online chat sessions.

Already, the auto maker reportedly is canceling plans for a new DOHC V-8 engine for its luxury-car lineup. A year ago, GM said it would pour $300 million into its Tonawanda, NY, plant for production of the new engine beginning in 2009. The new powerplant was earmarked to replace Cadillac’s Northstar V-8, slated to end its run in 2010.

Company officials earlier hinted tougher new CAFE laws also could jeopardize plans for new fullsize rear-drive cars in the U.S.

“These new regulations will certainly have an impact on our product plans, but it’s too early to make any definitive statements on what we may or may not do to meet the new requirements,” Jon Lauckner, vice president-global program management, writes during the online chat. “You can be sure we are evaluating a number of scenarios for how we will meet the challenge.

“However, suffice it to say, the challenge is much greater than is widely acknowledged and will require new technology solutions.”

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has put the cost of meeting CAFE at $5,000-$7,000 per vehicle.

“Every R&D effort is being placed on developing the technologies, not only to maximize efficiency but to allow them to be cost competitive and as such to be able to be sold at high volume,” writes Gary Smyth, director-Powertrain Systems Research Laboratory, GM Research and Development.

In addition to such things as cylinder deactivation and 6-speed transmissions, Smyth adds direct-injection engine technology and dual-clutch transmissions (DCTs) to the list of possible fuel-economy enhancers.

“We see direct injection as a major enabler to improving the efficiency of our conventional and hybridized propulsion systems,” Smyth says. “It has efficiency benefits in its own right. And it is an enabler to obtaining our next generation of clean-efficiency combustion, which we call HCCI (homogeneous charge compression ignition).”

Smyth stops short of saying DI will be featured across the board but says the technology is “critical…to support displacing petroleum in the future. (And) displacing petroleum requires high-volume applications of new technology.”

As for future transmissions, Smyth emphasizes GM’s latest push with 6-speed automatics in the U.S., where it expects to produce more than 3 million units annually by 2010. But more advance technologies also are being eyed.

“We are pursuing development of new architectures, including DCTs,” he says. “Nothing is off the table.”

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