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Profiles: High Voltage

Some have called GM’s E-Flex propulsion system a revolutionary change for the auto industry, but the man leading the project is more tempered in his predictions.

When Frank Weber started his career at General Motors as a product engineer at Opel in Germany in 1991, he had no idea he would one day hold the keys to the corporation’s future. Yet that’s exactly what happened in March 2007 when he was appointed global vehicle line executive and chief engineer for the automaker’s E-Flex systems development team. GM’s E-Flex initiative made its debut at the 2007 North American International Auto Show under the skin of the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that utilizes lithium-ion batteries as the sole propulsion system, while an on-board generator—either an internal combustion engine or hydrogen fuel-cell—replenishes the battery when it falls below a pre-determined energy level.

Weber’s responsibility is to make sure both the Volt and E-Flex become a reality under the tight timeframe GM product boss Bob Lutz has demanded—late 2010. Having worked on GM’s Epsilon vehicle platform development (Pontiac G6, Saab 9-3, Chevrolet Malibu, Opel Vectra, Saturn Aura and Opel Signum) in 1995 and as head of GM Europe program management and vehicle development operations since 2002, Weber has enough experience under his belt to know how to juggle all of the competing forces to make a vehicle program successful. But he’s still marching into uncharted territory when it comes to E-Flex, which will utilize not just an all-new platform (GM’s global compact architecture) but also an all-new propulsion system.

“What is different about the E-Flex program is that in a conventional vehicle development program you have within the company an infrastructure and processes that are used to deal with known issues—crash, quality, durability and cost reduction—all of these things are established. What is happening with E-Flex is that, because the batteries and electric drive are dominating the entire vehicle, there are many areas where we have to establish new processes and systems that are on top of what we already have in the company,” says Weber, 41, who uprooted his family from Germany to Detroit in August to take on this monumental task. Besides engineering the battery systems, Weber’s team also is working on developing a global infrastructure to support recharging capabilities. “We have to establish links very early on in the process to make it successful,” he says, pointing out that GM has given one person oversight for developing both the electric and hydrogen infrastructure. The automaker is beginning to establish cooperation with utility suppliers in various regions of the world to support vehicle recharging at shopping malls, municipal parking facilities and office buildings.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep Weber busy, he’s also developing a new supply base to support the E-Flex initiative. GM has signed a pact with Massachusetts-based A123Systems (www.A123systems.com) for battery development, and inked a deal with Behr (www.behrgroup.com) to provide the electrical HVAC system. Fortunately, utilizing GM’s compact vehicle architecture allows some sharing opportunities across vehicle lines. “In some major areas we decided to go with re-use starting with the global compact vehicle architecture. This wasn’t only done for size reasons, but for the good balance it provides between size of the engine compartment and overall flexibility. Because we carryover the front rails intact, and keep the dash layout, steering, instrument panel structure and the chassis components, we can speed up timing and mitigate risks,” Weber says.

Where GM will manufacture the Volt has yet to be decided, but Weber says the production process will have to strictly follow GM’s established manufacturing system initiatives: “The car has to be manufactured using our global bill of process rules. What we’ll have is the traditional load of our engine compartment with a small marriage for the battery, which will happen in a small station. Once that’s in we will focus on optimizing that process.”

Weber’s 20-member development team is receiving unprecedented support from GM’s upper-management. A senior management leadership board—consisting of Lutz, engineering boss Jim Queen, and powertrain boss Tom Stevens—meet on a monthly basis to get a progress report on the program and identify areas where more support is needed. GM’s automotive strategy board—which adds GM Chairman Rick Wagoner, global design leader Ed Welburn, CFO Fritz Henderson and manufacturing guru Gary Cowger—receives specific updates on E-Flex at each meeting. “The leadership involvement in this project is very unique,” Weber notes. “The pressure is high but we have a lot of support.”

 

 

 

E-Flex and Volt will have to meet a few important mileposts in the near future, not the least of which is final vehicle design freeze. Bob Boniface, who headed the design team that penned both the Camaro and Sequel concepts, is leading the production Volt design effort, and Weber says he expects final design freeze to happen within the next several months. But it must do more than look good. “The aerodynamic performance of this vehicle is very important. We’ve noted aero properties can have at least a three mile per gallon impact in city driving, which is even higher than mass in some cases,” Weber says. A specific example of how GM is balancing the conflict of design and efficiency can be seen in wheel development: Weber’s team provided the design office with parameters for mass and aerodynamic “boundary conditions” that designers had to work within.

As with any vehicle program, cost is an issue. In the past, GM’s Lutz has criticized other OEMs for producing hybrid and other environmentally-conscious vehicles without any potential profit goal. E-Flex’s complexity could result in GM following those it once criticized. Weber acknowledges that while Volt and E-Flex “cannot afford to be unprofitable,” the definition of what is profitable has to change: “We see there are going to be the first and second generation systems, and we have to look at this in the long term. The profit pressures are the same but on a different level.”

Weber is very cautious when it comes to making bold predictions about how E-Flex and Volt will change the automotive landscape: “Emotions are nice but you have to be very analytical. Before I talk about terms like ‘game-changer’ I want to get my battery pack first. Then I will know how big the impact will be.” 

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