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General Motors takes holistic approach to electric vehicle market in China

May 1, 2012

I visited the Shanghai campus of General Motors a few weeks ago and got a personal tour from Ray Bierzynski, GM China’s executive director of electrification strategy and his colleague David Reeck, electrification strategy manager. (Those titles make it sound like Ray comes up with the ideas and David has to come up with a way to make them reality. If so, I predict David will get a lot more gray hairs a lot faster than Ray.  ;-0 )

I came away understanding that GM’s electrification strategy in China involves more than just producing cars.  It is taking an holistic approach to electrification in China, looking at all the elements needed to make EVs a success.  While I won’t predict GM will be successful in the foreseeable future – it will take a lot of factors coming together for EV use to become widespread in China – I think GM’s endeavor will benefit everyone involved in the EV sector in China, from utilities to automakers.

Bierzysnki listed three (or four?) areas they were concentrating on:  Infrastructure, supplier development and capability, and public policy.  “Cost and infrastructure are where it is at,” he said.  “They are the two key elements to the development of the EV sector.”

That doesn’t mean GM is ignoring the car part of the equation, of course. The first thing you see when you enter the GM campus on Jinwan Lu in Pudong in Shanghai is a row of Volt hybrid—oh, I mean extended range — electric vehicles recharging using solar energy.

Volts charging at a solar station in GM's Shanghai headquarters. The Volt is on sale in China but GM's real goal is to expose officials to the technology, it seems.

The Volt is already on sale to consumers through GM’s dealership network in China for a hefty 498,000 RMB (US $79,250 at current exchange rates). But, says Bierzynski, “The Volt is not about sales volume.  It is about testing the market place, seeing how people use the car, where they recharge,” and stuff like that.

In that same spirit is GM’s March 2012 agreement with CATARC, China’s national vehicle testing standards lab, to manage a test fleet of Volts for a year in Beijing.   The press release doesn’t say who will be driving the Volts, but you can bet it will be some high-ranking decision makers.  In the press release Bierzynski is quoted as saying:  “It is important for us to offer those in key positions to affect policy an opportunity to experience firsthand our variety of electrification solutions for reducing the automotive industry’s dependence on petroleum.”

He put it much more simply to me during my tour:  “We want (the various stakeholders) to experience that the Volt is a hell of a lot of fun to drive.”   GM has 10 Volts deployed nationwide, between Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai.  (For the record, Bierzynski again told me that GM has never been asked to transfer EV technology to China….)   GM has regular meetings with MIIT , MOST , CATARC , and other government agencies to share its thoughts on energy policy, said Bierzynski.  I’d love to be a fly on any of those walls.

Walk a little past the recharging Volts, and you come to a row of charging units from domestic and foreign suppliers. Nothing from BYD . Why not, I asked?  They haven’t sent us one, said Reeck. One issue that has dragged on in China is the setting of national standards, be they plug, battery or whatnot.   GM is involved in the whole standards discussion,  said Reeck.  China has finally settled on an AC plug standard of its own, which is close to the European standard, which is close to J1772, the SAE standard.  But the Chinese standard is still  “fuzzy and undefined,” said Reeck.

Just beyond is a collection of electric vehicles from domestic brands.

GM has a bunch of domestic EVs at its Shanghai headquarters. Helps GM check out the local supplier base, says Ray Bierzynski, executive director of electrification strategy.

Ahh, checking out the competition, I asked?  Actually, it is part of GM’s efforts to develop a local supplier base, said Bierzynski.  “One of the aspects of local engineering is you want to understand where the local market is,” he says.  There are four main supplier areas in an electric vehicle, he said, the propulsion system, the heating and cooling systems, and the steering.

GM is evaluating local suppliers in all those areas, as well as testing locally-produced batteries. That occurs in GM’s new Advanced Technical Center, in a new building next to the main office building.   The Lab is only partly finished, but is doing r&d into battery composition as well as testing batteries. (See my October 19, 2010 interview with John Du, director of GM’s China Science Lab, for more on the battery r&d).  It has 96 test channels, Thomas Zhu, manager of battery systems and test lab at GM China, told me.  Which sounds like a lot until you hear that some tests take a long as 900 days.

Besides the Volt, GM is also introducing its eAssist mild hybrid technology  to China in the Buick LaCrosse and developing the Sail battery electric vehicle which it showed as a concept at the Guangzhou Auto Show in 2010.  It has also just launched the second generation EN-V, a pod-like personal electric vehicle which GM first showed at the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

The EN-V 1.0 lacked climate control and personal storage space, both of which the EN-V 2.0 has. Both versions are networked to the max, though.

At a press event in Beijing a few days after I toured the Shanghai campus, I asked GM China Group president Kevin Wale if GM thought there was an actual consumer market in China for a vehicle like the EN-V.  He said:  “We do think there is a market for it in the longer term.  As we redesign urban living, different types of solutions designed to (adapt to) dense city environments (will arise).  We want to be part of that solution.”  (GM is not the only one.  Other automakers—such as Chery Automobile Co. – showed similar tiny EVs at the Beijing show.)

Chery's pod-like EV that it showed at the Beijing auto show in 2012 is a stretch version of the EN-V. Not sure if the Chery EV is as technically advanced as GM's, though.

While at GM in Shanghai, I asked Bierzynski if he thought there would ever be a real consumer market for EVs in China.  The Chinese government has mandated that fuel economy reach 5.0 liters/100K by 2020 , he said, so the automakers are going to have to include EVs in their product mix to meet that standard.   Just as in the U.S., however, EVs wouldn’t be the only answer in China, Bierzynski added.  It would be a continuum of technologies, including fuel efficient vehicles and EVs.

In the near term, however, the majority of EVs in China would likely be commercial vehicles, said Bierzynski.  That is easy to figure out from looking at the list of type approvals (government permission to produce a specific model in China), he said.  Of the EV approvals, 80% are commercial vehicles, including buses.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 11:37 pm

    Great article, Alysha. Another GM insider told me a couple of years ago how GM (not SAIC-GM) was devoting significant efforts to education and policy influence on NEVs in China.

    I thought this was quote was particularly interesting: “…GM has never been asked to transfer EV technology to China…” I actually believe this. Why would anyone need to ask for what GM gives voluntarily?

    By comparison, you don’t see Chang’an building cars on Ford platforms or cooperating with Ford on EV technology. Ford doesn’t appear to be as forthcoming with technology as GM.

    I wonder whose strategy will prove to have been more productive five, ten years hence.

  2. May 2, 2012 1:36 am

    Bierzynski has said that to me before. I think is is likely true–to an extent. Re: Ford. I can’t say for sure that Changan isn’t planning to build cars on Ford platforms. And they may be cooperating on EVs, but Ford is waiting to see what the government policy is before actually commiting to EVs in China. CA has a similar approach. Nonetheless, GM’s relationship with SAIC, and its approach to the China market (which includes brown nosing the government) has been textbook.

  3. thecarczar permalink
    May 2, 2012 2:24 pm

    Great reporting as usual

  4. Lawrence permalink
    May 3, 2012 3:56 am

    Wasn’t that Chang’an Zhixiang CV8 sedan, introduced back in 2008, built on a Fiesta platform?

    • May 4, 2012 11:58 pm

      Lawrence, your memory for platforms goes back a lot farther than mine (of course mine is very tiny…). Possibly it was. I think Ford did share the older Fiesta platform with CA.

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