From Power to Experience, Ultium Will Drive GM’s Next Generation

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The battery cells coming out of the Ultium plant in Lordstown will be more than just a way to move vehicles, General Motors CEO Mary Barra says. They’ll be used to make advances in function and safety as well.

During a presentation at CES 2021, Barra and other leaders from GM outlined the company’s all-electric future, which hinges on the Ultium battery cells. By the time the Lordstown battery plant is in production in 2022, GM plans on having 13 electric vehicle models on the road, starting with the Cadillac Lyriq and GMC Hummer EV. Overall, the Detroit automaker plans to invest $20 billion – nearly 10% of that on the Lordstown Ultium plant – in electrification by 2025

“The electrification of global transportation can reduce emissions and power the advanced systems and connectivity between vehicles and transportation infrastructure to reduce congestion and crashes,” Barra said. “Global EV market penetration stands around 3%. We believe that is all about to change. At GM, we believe that after one of the most difficult years in recent memory, this year will prove to be an inflection point – the moment when our reliance on gas and diesel vehicles will begin transition to an all-electric future. GM intends to lead that change.”

The Ultium platform will be able to power nearly any sort of vehicle, says Mei Cai, GM’s technical fellow and lab group manager, and the battery cells have 60% more capacity than what GM has on the road now, providing up to 450 miles per charge.

“The foundation of our platform approach is a single, common-cell design that can be used across all our vehicles,” she said in the pre-recorded presentation. “[Ultium will] use a flat, rectangular pouch design that reduces the space between cells and can be stacked more efficiently into modules, providing more density in a smaller spaces. Vertically stacking cells can help us build modules for trucks, SUVs and large crossovers. Horizontal stacking allows low-slung performance vehicles. And in between, we have the platform for midsize crossovers.”

Other updates to GM’s propulsion systems, such as less wiring between individual cells and the integration of the battery packs into the chassis, form the Ultium Drive system, which provides five drive units that allow the automaker to switch models between front, rear and all-wheel drive without changing the transmission itself.

“We’re also working on our next-gen, high energy battery chemistry that will reduce the reliance on nickel and cobalt even further while reducing cost by 60% compared to current batteries,” Cai said. “We believe these batteries will deliver twice the energy density than Ultium battery cells, providing 500 to 600 miles of range on a single charge.”

Batteries will also power GM’s new electrical system dubbed “VIP” – short for vehicle intelligence platform – that will allow vehicles to do more for drivers and improves automation features. The system can process 4½ terabytes of data per hour, five times the ability of current vehicles, Cai said. The VIP will be available in GM electric vehicles and most of the lineup by 2023.

In the new Hummer, which goes on sale this year, the system will coordinate propulsion and braking “to deliver a level of modulation beyond anything we could deliver from a gas- or diesel-powered engine,” said Hummer’s lead development engineer, Aaron Pfau. 

Meanwhile, in the Cadillac Lyriq, the electrical system allowed designers to “curate entirely new sensory experience and took inspiration of VIP’s electrical bandwidth to reimagine what it means to always be connected to your vehicle,” said Candice Willett, Cadillac’s advanced lead creative designer.

Vehicles will light up as the driver approaches, recognizing who it is. Once inside, a 33-inch display will power up, providing a fully customized home screen for the driver. While driving, a head’s up display will use Epic Games’ Unreal Engine – the same system that runs the popular video game Fortnite – to project real-time navigation and a 3D rendering of the road ahead.

To conclude the presentation, Barra announced a new venture for GM: BrightDrop, a logistics venture that incorporates electric vehicles. 

“BrightDrop provides an ecosystem of smart, connected products including electric vehicles and software-enabled services, offering commercial delivery companies a platform for sustainable growth,” she said, announcing FedEx as an early partner in the company.

Its main product is the EV600, a battery powered van with a range of about 250 miles and the EP1, a self-propelled pallet.

The company wasn’t clear on just how the products would be sold, giving no specifics on whether they would be distributed through dealerships or if GM would sell directly to customers.

BrightDrop also will offer software and operational support for delivery businesses such as location services, battery status and remote unlocking.

But GM doesn’t intend to get into the delivery business, said Pamela Fletcher, GM’s vice president of global innovation. “One thing we are not is a logistics company,” she said, adding that GM is working with many companies with experience in the field.

Since late 2018, Fletcher, has been in charge of monetizing GM technology by turning ideas into businesses. “We really need to leverage our electrification expertise to other industries,” she said.

Showing Wall Street’s fascination with electric vehicles, GM shares rose to their highest intraday price since the company left bankruptcy protection in 2010. Shares were up 7.3% to $48.28 in morning trading.

On a webcast, Fletcher said the EP1 pallet can travel up to 3 mph, carrying up to 23 cubic feet of cargo weighing up to 200 pounds. The pallets can reduce the strain on workers but would not operate autonomously, at least to start.

They’re already being tested with FedEx, allowing workers to transport 25% more packages per day, GM said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Pictured: In a pre-recorded presentation at CES 2021, GM lab group manager Mei Cai shows how different arrangements of Ultium batteries can be used to power models ranging from sedans to pickups.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.