We had the opportunity to sit down with Bob Lutz on Sunday, a 72-year old icon whose no nonsense attitude and charismatic demeanor have led some to dub him the ‘Rockstar’ of the automotive world. Our conversation focused on two of the hottest topics at the auto show: GM’s ethanol partnership with Coskata, and the Chevy Volt. I’ve summarized/paraphrased/and copied the conversation below:
How personally involved are you in the release of the Chevy Volt?
I’m way more closely involved with the Volt than with any other GM vehicle, which has something to do with the uncharted waters of innovative design, new technology, and because it’s such an unconventional motor.
Could you talk more about the Coskata announcement and cellulosic ethanol production?
The whole deal is that it doesn’t use such expensive enzymes to break material down. This kind of production [enzymatic cellulosic ethanol] is time consuming and the step that has been kind of a hindrance for the ability to mass produce cellulosic ethanol. What you can do here is take all this waste material, anything except glass or metal, grind it up into a powder, produce plasma with something like a lightning bolt or massive electric charge. This turns the material to gas, which goes to anaerobic bacteria—which naturally exist in nature—and that live and reproduce in this environment, and they output ethanol. Further steps separate the ethanol and water. All of these things, the scrubber, the shredder, the plasma initiator for the gas, all this is known technology. The big idea is combining all of these elements, not inventing new technology.
This is a co-development partnership, intended to cement relationship and show GM is serious about it. Our fundamental desire, partly self-serving, and partly superior motive, is that we believe we have to do whatever we can to reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil, because with the major petroleum supplies being held in questionable areas/nations. We want to supplant or replace imported oil with a domestically produced product, and want to take the automobile out of the fire-line, e.g. global warming, funding global terrorism, etc. Part altruistic, part self-serving.
Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner says the Federal Government needs to ‘step it up’ in terms of ethanol production. Can you elaborate on what they need to do?
What there needs to be is some form of government regulation stating that in three years, any gasoline station pumping more than a certain number of gallons per day must have an ethanol pump. Otherwise it stays a ‘chicken and egg’ situation.
If ethanol can be produced for less than $1 per gallon, won’t the market take care of itself?
The pump price will not be under $1 per gallon—that’s the production price. Shipping, federal tax, and retail prices will add to that. It may be around $2 per gallon when gets to the pump. Why would oil companies want to put up the pumps themselves? That would be the only other option.
The Chevy Volt is nearing production status. What are the biggest successes and hold ups?
We were late getting the battery packs, and some are just coming in. There’s bench testing of battery packs, including max voltage and max current draw, with the cooling system disengaged. In very hot weather with battery cooling system failure we didn’t see much temperature rise. So far that’s very encouraging. But we don’t have enough battery packs to put in actual vehicles while we’re doing bench testing. Secondly, creating software to monitor the battery charge and tell the internal combustion system when to check in is very complicated. The batteries must work properly with drive train to get decent acceleration. If the batteries run out of power twenty miles from home, wouldn’t it be nice if the system knew this and could somehow quick charge the system and get you home? We want to have this all worked out before we put it out. But I’m not interested in demonstrating total automation, I want demonstrate 40 miles of lithium ion battery operation. But there is a minimum amount of software creation and optimization that must be done.
Is there any risk of the batteries overheating to dangerous levels?
We absolutely will not sell the Volt if there is any risk of them catching fire, battery shorts, or overheating. We’re supremely confident in the battery technology that we’re pursuing, lithium manganese or lithium ion, both of these are far more thermally stable than first generation, lithium cobalt oxide, which is used in laptop batteries [and the Tesla Roadster]. All lithium technology is not the same, and this was the first question we asked all battery suppliers. We only talked to companies that could positively guarantee that theirs would not catch fire.