GM’s Bolt EV team, up against short deadline, delivers – Detroit Free Press
The Chevrolet Bolt EV is in a race with Tesla Motors’ Model 3 to be the first affordable battery-only car to market with more than 200 miles of range.
The Bolt appears to be ahead. The team, led by Pam Fletcher, was selected as one of the Free Press Automotive Difference Makers to be recognized Tuesday during a dinner at the Detroit Athletic Club.
Team Bolt has taken a burnt orange prototype unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January 2015 and transformed it to a fleet of near-production cars journalists drove a year later at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The journey has been exciting, messy and complex. Chief engineer Josh Tavel and chief designer Stuart Norris have juggled family obligations and schedules. Their primary offices are in South Korea, but they’re regularly flying to Michigan. Larry Nitz, executive director of General Motors’ global propulsion systems, has led engineering of the battery technology, and Jason Ditman has been chief engineer for Bolt’s electric drive system.
Many more people have played crucial roles in the Bolt’s development than will be mentioned in this article. South Korea’s LG Group, which already supplied the battery packs for the Chevrolet Volt, was integral in engineering the powertrain.
But there’s no mistaking that Fletcher is the coach.
Raised in rural Sarahsville, Ohio, Fletcher became a gearhead at an early age, helping her dad tweak and repair the cars he raced on weekends around southeastern Ohio.
“My dad was a weekend warrior,” she said. “I was the oldest of two girls. When dad needed a helping hand I was the one who was glad to pitch in.”
She continued that passion at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). Toward the end of her undergraduate work she took a co-op assignment sponsored by McLaren Racing, She concentrated on the increasingly electronically controlled technology behind engines.
From there she joined GM, mostly working on high performance powertrains.
In the late 90’s she took a career detour, joining a startup in Charlotte that developed high-performance engine technology for the late Dale Earnhardt’s NASCAR team. Then she returned to GM in 2005 as part of the team that developed a two-mode hybrid powertrain for GM’s fullsize pickups and SUVs in collaboration with DaimlerChrysler and BMW.
The next stop was the first Chevy Volt program which launched in late 2010.
Fletcher projects a self-assurance. Not only has she taken apart and built enough engines to back up her resume, but be careful before racing her at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds.
Based on comments from those who have worked with her, Fletcher’s most valuable strength is keeping a sizable group of talented people on the same path, especially in a high-stakes project with a nearly impossible time table.
Work on the Bolt began in the 2011-12 timeframe, but the first year was plagued by spinning of wheels.
The Volt was attracting a loyal customer base, but one that was smaller than GM executives had hoped. The network of charging stations was sparse.
“Technology was changing so quickly and so were customer expectations,” Fletcher said of the early days. “We had different versions of this car, including an e-Sonic. What is now the Bolt was the fourth car we reviewed. There was a lot of debate and angst.”
The much-needed focus came during a meeting in the late spring of 2013 in the Virtual Reality room of GM’s Design Dome in Warren. Mary Barra, then head of product development, was there. So were then-CEO Dan Akerson, Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann and Mark Reuss, then president of GM North America.
“Literally we just had pretty pictures on a screen. We knew we were going to be on stage (showing the prototype) in a year and a half,” Fletcher said. “We knew range had to be about 200 miles or more. For the first time there was a feeling that we had a vision we could all get behind. The problem was we burned a lot of time getting to that point.”
There would be another obstacle to overcome.
Less than a year after the collective epiphany in the Virtual Reality room over what the Bolt should be, Kathryn Tanksley, a Georgia State County Judge, ordered GM to release all internal documents related to malfunctions of ignition switches on compact cars built a decade earlier.
As Barra, newly promoted to CEO, mobilized most of the company’s energy and talent to control the fallout from the infamous ignition switch crisis that ultimately cost more than $2 billion, Fletcher and crew had to stay on task.
One advantage for product development workers, especially in the auto industry, when something goes wrong from a product designed and sold in the past, these people must maintain a laser focus on the future, and specifically on one product.
Being caught up in a distraction, even one of that magnitude, was not an option.
“We had just received program approval by late 2013,” Fletcher recalled. “That included the car’s physical and performance attributes, capital requirements and launch date. We had no choice, given the timeline but to put everything else out of our mind.”
Tavel and Norris had the additional challenge of expediting the look, feel and performance of the car from South Korea, where they were based.
“You don’t want to know what my average days were like back then,” Tavel said during the Bolt’s unveiling in Las Vegas during the first week of January.
The conference calls with the Michigan-based team occurred during the middle of the night in Seoul. Then he and Norris had to be alert enough to put in full days with their Korean-based co-workers, as well as coordinating the battery development with LG Electronics.
It was just as tough a challenge for their families. Still, somehow, Tavel, who is a weekend racer in his own right, found time to pursue his passion. Last May he won his group in the Sports Car Club of America Mid-Ohio Majors at Lexington, Ohio, driving a Spec Racer Ford.
That’s not a disloyal act for a GM engineer. Spec Racer Fords are high-performance, closed-wheel, open-cockpit race cars manufactured and marketed by SCCA Enterprises to compete on paved road courses
Tavel’s and Norris’s travel schedules will be just as grueling this year, spending more time in the U.S. for the fine tuning and final testing before Bolt production begins this fall at the Orion Assembly plant.
Through the last year Nitz and Bill Wallace, GM director of global battery systems, worked closely with LG Electronics and oversaw validation of the battery packs, which is more demanding than it may sound. All internal combustion engine cars are tested in extreme heat, humidity and cold. If anything, batteries are even more sensitive to climate conditions.
Some of that testing could occur in deep freezers at the Warren Tech Center. These are 1,000-pound hunks. So it’s not like throwing a side of beef into your basement freeze.
Then the battery packs are connecting to testing equipment that simulates charging and discharging much as happens when they are driven.
The design evolved into a slightly higher-riding approach than a subcompact sedan, but more car-like than a Chevrolet Trax crossover.
“We were given a blank canvas – a rare opportunity with a unique platform to recast design of an electric vehicle for customers across the spectrum,” said Norris.
LG’s battery pack is mounted beneath the interior floor, opening up a surprising amount of interior space. A 102.4-inch wheelbase and wide track.
The interior offers a panoramic view from upright, SUV-like seating positions. The rear-window glass extends all the way to the license plate and integrates LED taillamps on the liftgate.
Norris and his team gave the driver and passenger seats a thinner and harder back with less foam than conventional seats. That created ample leg room in the two rear seats.
They also pushed the envelope with graphics for the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel and the 10.2-inch touchscreen in the middle of the dash.
From a performance perspective the Bolt can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just under seven seconds, slightly better than about eight seconds for the Volt plug-in extended-range hybrid.
There’s no way to know in early 2016 how consumers will react to a 200-mile range electric car priced about $30,000. Gas prices likely will remain a headwind in the near term for EVs, hybrids and extended-range hybrids like Chevrolet’s second generation Volt.
How many more public charging stations will be built is anyone’s guess.
“We’ve learned from our Volt customers that some people just don’t want to use gasoline at any price,” Fletcher said. “I’ve said it over and over. We’re in this for the long haul. Electrification isn’t a short-term play. You can’t be casual about it.”
Contact Greg Gardner: 313-222-8762 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12