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GM technology chief: 'Mobility will take different forms in the future'

Feb 9, 2015

The Next Idea

It can often be difficult to imagine just how much the latest innovations will truly affect our lives. The smartphone’s contributions, for example, are now obvious; the Segway’s, not so much.

One industry, however, that offers some of the clearest examples of how technology and new innovations will fundamentally change our world is the auto industry.

From driverless cars and 3-D printers, to shifting demographic and transportation trends, automakers are competing to find the best, most efficient innovations that will reshape everything from the way we buy (or share) cars to how we drive (or won’t) in the coming decades.

As GM’s chief technology officer, vice president of global research and development, and president of GM Ventures, Jon Lauckner is leading the automaker into the future. We ask him about where some of the industry’s latest innovations might be taking us.

(Interview has been condensed for length and content.) 

Jon Lauckner has been GM's chief technology officer since 2012.
Credit Courtesy of GM

In terms of alternative energy, or “green” technology, what’s way next -- beyond better batteries and fuel cells? How can green technology move us beyond some of these more conventional innovations, you might say, to something more grand and spectacular?

Jon Lauckner: I think we’d be delighted just to have batteries that have quite a bit more energy density than the ones that we’ve got today. Fuel cells where we could reduce the costs to the point where they could be commercially viable in large volumes, and we’d have an infrastructure to go with it.

But beyond that, it’s tough to call what the next technology is beyond that one because we’ve got so much to work to do on those two particular technologies.

You mentioned the infrastructure to go with it, what specifically are you referring to?

JL: Hydrogen-refueling infrastructure. If you don’t have a refueling infrastructure for fuel cells, then it is going to significantly delay how fast you can roll that technology out. It’s kind of like electric vehicles and the electric grid, right? The grid is all around us, but until you can actually make it accessible to electric vehicles, there’s always the question that people have about electric vehicles, which is: “Where do I charge it?”

In your mind, is there an either/or between better electric batteries that plug into the grid and hydrogen fuel cells?

JL: Potentially they can be complementary. It depends on what kind of progress we make with battery electric vehicles and battery technology, and what sort of progress is made with fuel cells. Potentially you could think about battery electric vehicles being used in smaller vehicles and lighter vehicles. Then some of the larger, heavier vehicles where it’s really difficult, at least with today’s technology to get enough batteries on board. Maybe that’s the realm of fuel cells.

How realistic is a zero-emissions car?

JL: We’re getting really close now. When we talk about zero emissions, though, I suppose we should talk about the topic a little more carefully. When we talk about regulated emissions at the tailpipe, specifically hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen, we are rapidly approaching zero even today. We’re down to milligrams of those types of emissions.

What happens though is lately CO2 tends to get lumped into that category as well, and CO2 is quite a bit more difficult to get down to zero because CO2 is one of the products of combustion, at least in the internal combustion engines that we have today. So, getting down to zero CO2 is going to be quite a challenge, and the only two technologies that we have available today that are really zero CO2 emissions are basically battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.

The only thing I point out is those aren’t really zero CO2 emissions everywhere, because you need some energy to create electricity in the first place, whether that’s natural gas, or whether that’s coal, or a lot of other materials that you can use to generate electricity. And hydrogen, even though it’s a naturally occurring element, you’ve got to somehow create hydrogen. It just doesn’t exist for you to freely be able to use. So, it takes energy to create energy, as a matter of fact, in the case of both hydrogen and battery electric vehicles.

Moving on to everyone’s favorite topic: Millennials. They’re driving less, owning fewer cars, living in more densely-populated urban areas with more public transportation. What I don’t get a sense of is how people will get around in 15-20 years? What is your sense of this shift?

JL: Well, yeah, there’s even some doubt as to whether the Millennials have that radically different attitude towards automobiles, or whether it’s a function of the fact that a lot of them are suffering under the weight of student loans, and frankly, a lack of purchasing power to the point where cars are farther down on their list.

Some recent studies have suggested that, in fact, Millennials are much like prior generations in that they want to own a vehicle. So the whole question of how different Millennials are from prior generations is a little bit up in the air, I’d say at the moment.

But, more broadly, mobility will take different forms in the future.

What you’ve seen lately is more car-sharing that’s come on to the scene, and while it’s still a small fraction of the overall fleet, you probably can expect car-sharing to grow.

Ride-sharing, which is different than car-sharing, because car-sharing is really the use of a car when you need it, whereas, at least the way I define it, somebody is coming to pick you up and take you to a particular location. We used to think of that exclusively as a taxi service or a ride service, right? But now, in fact, you’ve got companies that are actually creating an entire business out of that whole concept of ride-sharing. The most notable one would be Uber.

For you at GM, how is this informing some of the things that you are doing to prepare for the future?

JL: A couple years ago, we formed a group known as Urban Active. Urban Active is looking into all of these types of uses of transportation that are different than, let’s say, sole ownership of a vehicle. They’re looking into different types of mobility than we’ve had in the past, with the idea that, no doubt, there will be possibilities to create entire businesses out of these new types of mobility, and we want to be one of the leaders in actually being able to create that type of opportunity for the company.

The first generation of GM's En-V electric car that can drive itself.
Credit Courtesy of GM

Our partner on this project, Jeff DeGraff, as well as some others, have noticed the Google self-driving car looks a lot like the kind of technologies that GM does well. How do you see GM asserting its innovation and technology leadership in the self-driving automobile space as we move forward?

JL: Well, we have a number of initiatives underway. We’re actually working with colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, by the way, on solving the technical challenges that exist with autonomous vehicles.

We have a car very much like the car Google has shown. We call it the En-V2 Autonomous. En-V2 stands for Electric Network Vehicle, and “2” is the second generation of that vehicle, and we have an autonomous variant that looks conceptually similar to the Google car.

So, we’re very much aware of autonomous driving technology. We work on it day-in and day-out with our own research and development organization and our own product development organization. We’re working with suppliers, we’re working with colleges and universities, and we’re going to try to get it on the road just as soon as we can.

Any expectations on when that might be?

JL: I’m not going to hazard a guess, but it’s going to be several years away, for sure.

Strati, built by Arizona-based Local Motors, is the world's first 3-D printed car. The car takes about 44 hours to print.
Credit Flickr/Dave Pinter

There have been a lot of innovations happening in customizable technology, especially in large-scale manufacturing processes. At last month’s Detroit Auto Show, Local Motors showed off its 3-D printed car called the Strati. With advances in nanotechnology and materials science, there are a lot of things happening in 3-D printing. Where is it going, in your view, in the auto industry?

JL: Interestingly enough, we are quite familiar with 3-D printing. We have some of the largest 3-D printers that are available. We use them to make prototype parts, actually.

I would say the biggest single shortcoming of 3-D printing today, at least for us, is it’s not very scale-able. That is, we tend to think of building vehicles in the scales of hundreds and thousands and millions, and meanwhile, a 3-D part, depending on how complicated it is, might take anywhere between 10 minutes to a few hours to actually create. That’s not a very well-suited technology for us to use in high-volume automobile production.

There may be other uses for 3-D printing. For example, we can use 3-D printing perhaps in some of the work that we have on the manufacturing side of the house -- specifically, 3-D print components that would help us on machinery and equipment, things like that. But in terms of being something where you’re going to be able to 3-D print a car, an entire car, at very high volumes -- so far that technology is not on the horizon.

How can some of the technologies you’re working on at GM, for the next generation or generations of cars, be applied to other industries? Have you gotten calls from people in other industries asking you about stuff you’re working on and how they might be able to apply that?

JL: Sure. We have discussions with companies -- companies whose names you’d recognize, that work in other industries. We talk about areas where we could collaborate together, where perhaps they’ve already deployed technology that could be useful to us or vice-versa. So we have those discussions and there are some opportunities to work across industries on various pieces of technology.

Is there an example you might be able to give?

JL: No. I’d have to name the company and name the technology, and I’m not willing to do that.

Okay, fair enough. What is one thing outside of GM in the Michigan community that you’d change that would greatly improve what you do inside GM?

JL: It’s really around making sure that we have the generations that are up and coming prepared for the jobs that are really going to characterize the economy of the future.

We strongly support STEM education, basically a strong foundation in science, technology, and math. These are the kind of jobs that are in demand today, specifically engineers. Engineers are in very short supply throughout the U.S. and across industries.

These are the kind of things that we are going to really need to thrive and prosper because at the end of the day, a company is only going to be able to innovate as well as it has the intellectual capability and the experience to be able to solve the problems that we face today, and new and novel ways for the future.

So, having the right skill-set in the workforce is something that’s really important, and something that governments everywhere -- whether that’s the state of Michigan, or more broadly across the United States  -- really need to focus on.

How difficult is it for you to find the right people to do what you need to do?

JL: Well, we recruit fairly aggressively across a number of colleges and universities throughout the United States. We’re always looking for engineers -- people who have a background in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering. Those are pretty important to us in product development. We seem to do reasonably well, but I know that there’s definitely going to be a need for even more in the future, and so it’s something that we have to continue to work on.