Pamela Fletcher has been on the fast track since she was a kid, working on cars alongside her racecar hobbyist dad. As a mechanical engineering student at Kettering University, she had possibly the coolest co-op ever, working on engines for racecar maker McLaren. This was around the time electronic controls were the next big thing in powertrain transmissions. Perpetually fascinated by new technology—and figuring out how it works, or could work better-- she made the leap to the electrical world.
In 2005, Fletcher joined GM as it started to ramp up its electrification program with a line of hybrid full-size SUVs and pickup trucks. She was the propulsion system chief engineer on the first generation Chevrolet Volt, and now leads General Motors’ electrified vehicles program. She talked to IndustryWeek about the Volt, the forthcoming Bolt, and GM’s strategy going forward for electric vehicles.
The Bolt, when it’s released in late 2016, is expected to have more than 200 miles of electric range. That’s a lot more than the 53 miles of the Volt. Two hundred miles is like the holy grail of electric range. It’s when regular people start saying, “Well, maybe I’ll consider buying an electric vehicle.” How was your engineering team able to make the leap so quickly from a 50-mile battery to 200? What’s changed?
It’s more that they are completely different concepts. The Bolt EV is more for consumers who want to drive all-electrically—who are ready for that and totally comfortable. The Volt is for people who also want to drive all-electrically, but they want that backup plan. They want that onboard generator just in case their plans change or they want to drive cross-country quickly. So two different customers for those vehicles.
I would also say that battery chemistry and battery costs have come down, which start to make the long-range Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) more viable for consumers and for GM.
LG supplied the battery cell for the Volt and all of the propulsion components for the Bolt. How was this different than your typical supplier relationship?
[Usually,] we go out and we competitively bid every component separately, and here we have LG supplying the entire system. They’ve been involved in the Bolt EV project from the very beginning, and we’ve worked together to scope what the car would be and inspect all of the components that they would need to provide to make that vision come true.
Will the Bolt have to be a lot lighter to go farther on a battery charge?
We’ve not really revealed any of the technical details of the car yet. What I would say is the Bolt EV was designed specifically to be an electric vehicle, so efficiency was important in every component.
Now that Volkswagen’s diesel engines aren’t what they were cracked up to be, do you see an opening in the market for electric vehicles?
I’m not going to comment on a competitor’s current events, but what I would say is our strategy is to provide very compelling vehicles. The idea that an electric car is anything less than a great car is something we wouldn’t even consider. That’s why with the Bolt EV, you’re going to see not only 200 miles of battery range, you’re going to see a great car in terms of the features and utilities that it offers consumers.
We just crafted a second-generation Volt, and that car was specifically crafted around what our current Volt owners told us they wanted. They were very clear: “We drive electrically most all the time, so if you give us more range, that will make us all that much more happier.” We gave them 40% more range. They also loved the fun-to-drive aspect, so we gave them even more fun with acceleration performance. And for those few times they do use the gasoline range extender, we improved the fuel economy.
Do you see an untapped audience out there for electric vehicles? What do you think the people waiting in the wings are looking for?
I think there’s a lot of misperceptions about what driving electric really is. You know—that it can’t be a great car, that it’s not fun to drive. We work to break all those barriers. We know that the approach of getting people in the car to drive it is a sure way to break those barriers, and we continue to work on messaging and other ways to communicate the great reasons why you would consider driving electric.
Will there still be room for the Volt after you introduce the Bolt?
Around the globe, there are different customer needs. Even within the U.S. there are. You go to California, you see people who are pretty knowledgeable about what driving electric means and like the idea of not using any gasoline, not having any tailpipe emissions. You go to other parts of the country, they’re not as familiar. That’s where having that backup plan, that range extender, gives them the assurance that they can drive electric but they don’t have to worry about ever running out of range.
Just like we’re coming out with that midsize car, the Malibu Hybrid. That’s also electrification but meets a very different consumer need. They’re people who are looking for a roomy midsize sedan that needs room to haul people or cargo. But they want it to have low cost to ownership and be efficient. A 47-mpg midsize car hybrid really resonates in that particular segment. It’s just another example of why you want to have multiple entries. And then we’re working on an autonomous Volt. We’re going to have a fleet of those on the GM campus next year.
Do you see Tesla as a challenger?
I applaud all credible entries into the electrification space. I think it will go a long way to helping accelerate adoption. At this time in the evaluation of EV’s, that’s great. What I would say is we have a strategy. We’re trying to make this [technology] available to everyone. And so that’s why we’re coming out with the affordable long-range battery electric vehicle.
Do you see the Bolt going head-to-head with Tesla’s forthcoming Model E, which Tesla is saying will also come in at that $30,000 price point?
I see stuff in the newspaper. I don’t have any facts on that.
Tesla gets the lion’s share of the attention around electric vehicles. What’s the feeling around that at GM? Do you guys feel like you haven’t gotten your due?
No, I guess I talk to customers every day, and the fact that as decided by our customers, not by us, [the Volt is] the most awarded car in the modern era, by third-party surveys--that to me is the most important thing that I could hope for.