Detroit Motor Show: General Motors now wants to build green cars

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General Motors now wants to build green cars

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On January 23rd, things will get serious. Then General Motors publishes its 2007 figures, and then for the first time you could find yourself number two in the world behind Toyota. But the management around Vice President Bob Lutz already has a strategy for the recovery: Away from oil.

R.ick Wagoner is relaxed, maybe a little tired. He smiles a lot, keeps scratching his non-existent beard and sometimes yawns heartily. It’s been a long day at the Detroit Motor Show, which opens to the public today, and the President of General Motors is clearly looking forward to closing time. Even the question of whether it is already clear who was number one in car manufacturing in 2007, GM or Toyota for the first time, does not lure Wagoner from its reserve. "We will publish our numbers on January 23rd."

Wagoner has known for a long time whether or not he was just able to surpass the 9.37 million Toyota. But that doesn’t seem to be that important at the fair, on the contrary. As is the American way, the corporate executives are looking ahead and repeatedly proclaiming their new strategy: away from oil.

It is impressive that a “car guy” like Bob Lutz is also at the service of the new cause. On the one hand, the 75-year-old GM vice president can chat passionately about his test drives with the new 620 hp Corvette ZR1. "The engine is like an unlimited bank account and you only ever write checks." Half an hour later, Lutz says: "In the future, the cars will be electric." And until the first serious GM electric car comes onto the market, That should be 2011 if Lutz wants to stay in office. "I would see that as the culmination of my career."

First of all, there will be new hybrid cars at the fair, i.e. those that combine gasoline and electric motors. These are mainly large models, pick-ups and off-road vehicles. Europeans may shake their heads at this, but a glance at the streets around Detroit shows that Americans want to drive big cars and that making these cars more economical seems promising. The car, which Lutz himself would obviously prefer to a Corvette and which he is waiting for series production, is two sizes smaller. GM is currently using the so-called plug-in technology in the Chevrolet Volt and Opel Flextreme studies. All of them are powered exclusively by electric motors, and the batteries can be charged while driving by an internal combustion engine that acts as a generator – so the car can run up to 500 Drive miles. Waiver is not planned in the minds of those responsible for GM.

Words that you hear again and again from all American manufacturers at the trade fair are “convenient” and “affordable”. Managers emphasize these important words in American business life more often than in Germany, for example. In any case, the German car manufacturers are praising their elaborate diesel technology at the fair, which is only available in expensive premium vehicles. Of course, developing an electric car is also expensive, if only because of the batteries. But all GM engineers are firmly convinced that they can produce them at marketable prices. This even applies to fuel cell cars, which form the end of GM’s strategy, because they can do without oil at all.

Larry Burns, who is also GM Vice President and responsible for research, development and strategic planning, is responsible for the extreme ambition. Burns says: “By the end of 2009, we will have developed fuel cell technology to such an extent that it works just as reliably as a car with a combustion engine.” The cost of the costs will be brought under control. “The aim is to offer a car with a fuel cell for the same price as one with a gasoline engine.” To many experts, that seems almost unattainable; the processes in the on-board power plant, which generates energy for the electric motor from hydrogen and oxygen, are too complicated. There is also no infrastructure for the supply of hydrogen, and its production also costs money and energy.

Larry Burns is not concerned about that. During the conversation he lectures long and quiet, you have to look directly at him to understand everything. Conversely, Burns ’gaze always rests on his interlocutor – not just out of politeness, but also because he reads what is being said from his lips. Years ago, Burns had a sudden hearing loss that permanently impaired his hearing. What he says is all the more haunting. That you just have to start. That you should only get one city first and then build up the infrastructure so that customers can buy the fuel cell cars. For the greater Los Angeles area, around 120 million dollars are needed to set up enough hydrogen fuel pumps. "That’s a lot of money, but we’re spending $ 26 billion on the Alaska Pipeline," says Burns.

His quiet voice, the wide-open eyes, the slim stature – Larry Burns doesn’t fit the towering executives Wagoner and Lutz, the head of research tends to lead the fine blade at GM. When he says, for example, that hydrogen is currently being used to remove sulfur from gasoline, and that that amount could power 13 million fuel cell cars, Burns just smiles, nothing more. No triumph, no gesture, no volume.

And until everything is so far with “convenience” and “affordability” for the fuel cell as well, part one of the strategy will take effect: At the fair, GM clearly committed itself to expanding the FlexFuel range – even more cars than today should be fueled with bioethanol be able. The bosses of GM, of all people, have run out of gasoline in their blood.

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