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China to be first test of GM’s mini-EV project

January 20, 2012

I ran into Ray Bierzynski, director of electrification strategy at GM China, on the floor of Cobo Hall last week at the North American International Auto Show. We chatted a bit and he mentioned GM’s EN-V project in the northeast China municipality of Tianjin.  We didn’t have much time to talk there—Bierzynski had come straight from the airport to Cobo. But I was intrigued by his comments and sent some questions to GM when I got back to California. 

Turns out it is kind of old news. GM put out a press release about it late last year.   But it was news to me, so I’m writing about it.  What GM’s EN-V project in Tianjin—indeed, the whole Eco-City project—reminds me of is a concept car. Or of the clothes designers show on the catwalk. They aren’t something consumers will buy in that exact form. But they do offer tantalizing glimpses of the direction the styling—or in this case urban planning – may be going. And in this case it is a direction I like.   I will definitely have to visit Tianjin next time I am in Beijing to check it out.

Some background:  GM calls the EN-V “a radical change in mobility to address growing urbanization issues.” Well, that’s timely because China just became a majority urban country. In mid-January, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced there were twice as many people living in cities in China as living in the countryside. That’s a momentous change for a country that was 81% rural in 1989, nearly a decade after Deng Xiaoping launched his Reform and Opening program. But anyone who has been to China lately knows that while urbanization may be raising the living standards of millions, it is also eroding the quality of life for just as many. Cars are a big part of that erosion. Traffic congestion and pollution are plagues in China’s largest cities.

The pod-like EN-V, which GM debuted at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010,  to quote GM’s boiler plate,  “is a two-seat electric vehicle that was designed to alleviate concerns surrounding traffic congestion, parking availability, air quality and affordability for tomorrow’s cities.”  Besides being fully electric, the EN-V is connected. So the EN-V (which stands for Electronic Networked Vehicle) can sense other vehicles (and hopefully avoid collisions.). It can also drive itself, park itself, and be retrieved (which would put a lot of valets out of work and unemployment is a sensitive topic in China so maybe that would not be a popular feature with the government…). It has internet connectibility—and thus social networking capability.  The first-gen EN-V was a low-speed vehicle—max speed was 40 kph (about 25 mph)—and its lithium-ion phosphate battery had a range of 40 km, or about 25 miles.

Frankly, the first generation EN-V wasn’t all that practical. It was supposed to be a two-seater, but look at it.

The first generation EN-V doesn’t seem very practical. Wonder what Gen 2 will look like?

Would two Americans fit in that little cab? And Chinese are getting fatter. But, Chinese do seek easier ways to get around than a bicycle, or an electric bicycle. So GM figures the low-speed electric vehicle market in China could be low-hanging fruit for the right product. When I visited GM in Shanghai in September of 2010, the PR guy at the time (GM rotates PR people through China faster than the cartridges turn on a Six-Gun revolver) told me:  “We need to figure out if the consumer (for an EN-V) is the one who already has a car, or is this going to be there is enough e bike riders to buy this. We don’t know. We are going to do research on this. We are pretty sure the 200 million e-bike riders will view (the EN-V) as like a TV upgrade. You could have a higher price, but has to be something they can reach.”

Now, at the time I challenged that, and I still do. An electric bike is pretty damned cheap. I mean, a little a 1,000 yuan, about US$158 at current exchange rates.  I don’t see how the EN-V could cost that little.  But the Tianjin project is still intriguing. The point is,  GM is forging ahead with the EN-V project.  From now on, the EN-V will be badged a Chevrolet. Woo hoo, a tiny electric Chevy! And China isn’t the only place the EN-V will be tried out. GM is aiming to test it in megacities around the world. GM Research—that includes the U.S. and China—has the technical lead for the next-gen EN-V.  But, “GM China is managing the overall (Tianjin) project, specifically the electrification strategy and teams. I will be heading up the project development,” Bierzynski said in an email response.

GM signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tianjin Eco-City in April 2011, and has been conducting a technical feasibility study since then.  Hence the press release in October 2011 rather than April, I guess. Now, a (very little) bit about the Tianjin Eco-City, the first place the next-gen EN-V will be tried out.  The full name is Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City.   It is 50/50 joint venture between a Chinese Consortium led by Tianjin TEDA Investment Holding Co., Ltd. (Tianjin TEDA) and a Singapore Consortium led by Keppel Group. The aim is to create a sustainable mixed-use city.  Rather than me re-typing all the info, check out this website.

GM won’t say when the next-gen EN-V will appear. But it will be a step up from the original concept. Said Bierzynski:  “Our plan is for the next generation EN-V design to retain key elements of the original concept EN-V, such as the small footprint and maneuverability. It would also retain the key technologies, such as battery electric propulsion and the networking (or connected) and autonomous capabilities. However, it will also add features that customers need such as climate control, personal storage space and all-weather and road operation that were missing from the original concepts.” But will it have On-Star? Okay, perhaps that is asking too much.

I’m not sure how GM is going to cram the extras Bierzynski mentioned into the little EV and keep it comparably priced with an electric bicycle. Maybe that isn’t a goal anymore. In any case, I wouldn’t mind driving one when the next-gen EN-V finally comes out!

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