General Motor’s Interesting New Tech

Nov 10th, 2008 | By | Category: Transit

General Motors is nearing death–a breathtaking fall in a dizzily short amount of time.

And here’s what might be most shocking–despite being saddled with the costs and responsibilities of being the largest private pension and health insurance provider in the world, GM has made clever and key investments that deserve fulfillment. Yes, I’m talking about an American car-maker; hear me out.

Nevermind the now-defunct EV-1–the first modern mass-produced electric car. GM’s heavy-duty hybrid technology would be far more revolutionary than Toyota’s.

The Toyota technology can only be applied to smaller, lighter vehicles–topping out at perhaps the Highlander SUV. Such vehicles are only suited to commuting. In contrast, GM’s technology (developed with BMW and Chrysler) can be applied to huge vehicles–pickups, commercial trucks, and buses.

Why is the GM technology superior? The efficiency gains from hybrid technology are vastly larger in big vehicles. A Prius has only about a 20% gain in operating efficiency, compared to a similarly sized and shaped car. In contrast, the improvement for a full-sized pickup is more like 200-250%.

The Prius, in many instances, is replaceable; bicycles for short trips, mass transit for basic travel. Commute-shmommute; abandoning those cars will give us greater gains than switching to slightly better engines. But those larger vehicles, their tasks are still imperative.

Even if you buy into the environmentally clean car commute bullshit, GM’s approach here is objectively better than anyone else. The Chevy Volt drives its wheels only with electric motors, supplementing the energy stored in a modest battery pack with a gasoline-fired electric generator.

Electric motors produce all their torque right from the start–obviating the need for any sort of energy-sapping transmission system, particularly the ornate sort required when both gas and electric motors are driving the wheels. The small battery pack is sufficient in capacity for the vast majority of trips taken by people with these sorts of cars. The vast majority of energy in vehicle is stored as liquid fuel–that is more weight, space and energy efficient than batteries will ever be. And, since the gas-fired motor is only attached to a generator, it can always operate at its optimal speed using only fixed gearing. The whole package uses each part to its maximal advantage, while being overall simpler than the Prius-hybrid approach. If people are going to continue to commute by car, and live in sprawl, this is the better approach.

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