THE INSIDE MAN

GM's future is near and nearby

GM's future is near and nearby image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: | posted June 17, 2009 07:00

GM calls Asia, home

It can be overwhelming. The diversity and dynamism of Shanghai. The global reach and unbounded optimism of Auto Shanghai 2009. Right down to the 20 course Shanghainese feasts at Tai Shen Yuan en route to the Shanghai GM facility and at a Versailles like Abalone restaurant on the Bund. For its part, GM was not about to look mealy-mouthed, launching 37 models at the Auto show.

Perusing the tip of the GM China iceberg in Shanghai GM will impress that; 1. GM has, in size and scale, duplicated the whole of GM North America in this growing superpower called China, and 2. whatever problems GM Detroit has, it has no effect on the expansion plans over here. It's even sponsoring an EPCOT center like Pavilion at next year's Shanghai World Expo 2010.

GM, a major player in the principal market segments in China, has all bases covered. Shanghai-GM-Wuling makes and sells the best selling mini-commercial vans for the country, easily 30% plus of the domestic car market. SGM makes the popular Buick Estelle [Chevrolet Optra] and the smash-hit Chevrolet Cruze for the middle class market. SGM supplies the popular Business executive market with stretch versions of Buicks and Cadillacs, with hybrid versions to match. The European sports sedan market is well served by SAAB. And as far as China's luxury market is concerned, SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade and the Buick Enclave are still popular. And there's the minivan market, where GM's Buick Firstland GL8, Chevrolet Venture to you and me, is well entrenched.

For the growing domestic market, GM's John Thomson, formerly of GM Thailand, is tasked to evolve a pre-owned/used car baseline as China's used car market is still a fragmented 3rd party free-for-all. There are no big car exchanges that set used car prices here nor are there reliable trade-in tables and pre-owned sales guides. Much as GM's head of Global Design, Mr. Ed Welburn gets emotionally excited by his baby, the Chevrolet Camaro, Ed is now deeply involved in ensuring that the Extended Range Electric Vehicle - the Chevrolet Volt - will come to Asia-Pacific in less than 2 years time.

The Volt addresses the stored power range anxiety that GM's first EV owners had to contend with in the 90's. By installing 220 Lithium-ion batteries delivering 16kWh charged by a small internal combustion engine generator, the Volt driver never has to worry about lack of overnight charging time when venturing far from a domestic socket's reach. Being an electric vehicle, the engine generator does not drive the car. Other forms of generators like the hydrogen fuel cells of the Chevrolet Equinox are under study. GM considered esoteric alloys and composites but decided that the well-to-wheel environmental costs outweigh any efficiency advantages. Moreover, GM felt that reducing mass, will compromise crash safety in small-car-big-car collisions. Car mass is still a safety mantra for any US car maker.

GM, assuming the typical 64km daily Freeway EPA cycle commute, decided to concentrate on improving the Volt's aerodynamics so as to extend the range and target that 100% stored electric energy powers that typical trip. Being a compact with aerodynamically sealed and chamfered surfaces, the use of solar panels were discarded as these are deemed more efficient in large, flat and stationary applications. Issues with Asian commutes that have longer stop n' crawl duration and the lack of noise while operating in the city, are being dealt with. Being an "instant torque" electric drive it feels like a 250hp V6 with acceleration from 0-100 is about 9.0 seconds while top speed is limited to 160km/h.

On a more immediate future, Shanghai GM plants must be the busiest in the GM auto world as almost all the models and brands that GM sells in China are made here. At 11% of a 10million unit/year market, that's a lot. More than enough to resurrect GM brands that have lost their sparkle in North America. Since China is the biggest market for the Buick and Cadillac brands, the staple sedans, SUVs and stretched sedans are made here. China is close to becoming SAAB's major market and the next step from CKD assembly can be taken in a few months time. All of GM's modern plants are modeled on its Eisenach plant in the former DDR and the same applies to GM Rayong on the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand - where most Philippine market cars come from.

What is even more indicative of the future is the PATAC or Pan Asia Technological Automotive Center. This is a major R&D center that tests every component and parts module that goes to making any car that GM sells and exports. As a major design center it does inter-model themes and from the ground-up designs of models and parts. All considerations for global products and durability-safety-emissions-NVH are tested here; this is literarily the womb, cradle and testing stage of all GM products. PATAC is also a systems integrator of the various part suppliers to GM, as PATAC monitors parts performance over time. Spectacular and frequent crash tests are just one of the many things this facility does.

The only indication that the vast and eerily quiet PATAC employs 1,500 is the number of shuttle buses that were parked for the employees just before quitting time. It does handle secret work not only for other global car makers but also for other institutions. Curiously, PATAC is well secured by the PLA with their distinct green uniforms rather than China's 3 million grey suited security guards. This is not all. PATAC will soon have a 5.6 square kilometer proving ground around 2 and half hours drive from Shanghai in Guangde, Anhui. The 1.6B RMB facility can test 140 vehicles over 20 million kms a year.

One of PATAC's latest concepts that was shown at the Auto Show was the Buick Business Concept - a mid-size van with limousine architecture which allows for multi-passenger seating and working. Another anticipated concept vehicle is the gullwing Buick Riviera.