By Jim Kerr

I like to think I am fairly up-to-date with technology that drives the automobile industry – that is, I used to think I was up-to-date. In January, I experienced an event that showed me a glimpse of our automotive world, how much is happening and how quickly it is changing. I didn’t even have to leave the comfort of my living room to do it!

The event, named, GM NEXT, was an around-the-world Internet conference from General Motors. More than 25 of GM’s current and future leaders from around the world participated in a Virtual Media Forum about the future of GM, the automotive industry and personal transportation. By logging onto the GM web site, I was able to chat with automotive experts from India, China, South America, Europe, and of course North America. Because time zones are different around the world, the GM NEXT program encompassed a 24-hour period, where I could log on and off at any time, yet there was always someone online ready to discuss trends, issues and technologies.

The Virtual online conference focused on five areas: Design, Technology, Green (Environment), Ideas, and Reach (Corporate Responsibility, Public Policy etc.) While I did duck in and out of all the virtual chat rooms, my interests focused in the Technology and Green forums. Micky Bly, Director of Hybrid Vehicle Integration and Controls, North America discussed the future of vehicles in North America. He told us GM’s focus on hybrid technology is on large vehicles first – the ones that consume the most fuel. This will have the biggest impact on our environment. As for the future, Bly says “We will continue show diesel hybrid in concept vehicles and we are studying and developing them at GM….but the market is in question here for diesel hybrids. Diesels are already costly…and then add a battery and then the hybrid technology.”

Looking to the future, “The e Flex is our next technology introduction -that is a plug-in electric vehicle for about 40 miles of range, and then if you need to drive more than 40 miles an Internal Combustion engine fires up and you can drive up to 400 or more miles, then plug in and recharge the battery or fill up the fuel tank.” “So you if you drive less than 40 miles a day and charge at night…you may never use a drop of gas.”

From the other side of the world, David Chen, General Manager, GM Beijing Operations discussed “Green” issues, including global warming and what technologies can be used to help the environment. According to Chen, “Diesel engine powered vehicles have proven an effective means to address CO2 emission and energy efficiency in Europe. Unfortunately, due to the poor diesel quality in China, such technologies are not widely used in China. China today has less than 1% of diesel passenger cars. China recognizes the diesel potentials for CO2 reduction and fuel economy improvement. They are addressing the diesel quality issue.”

Maryann Combs, President, PATAC (Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center) discussed hydrogen – “In regards to hydrogen vehicles, I do believe that it is realistic for this to occur in the relatively near future. The fuel cell technology has been advancing and so has the other technology needed on the automobile for powering it by hydrogen. The key questions of affordability and timeline will depend on consumer demand to drive volumes up and, of course, the development of a hydrogen infrastructure to make refueling as convenient for customers as gasoline is today.”

Two things really hit home from my participation in the GM NEXT conference. First, the depth of talent and knowledge from around the world is amazing. These are key individuals, who lead equally skilled teams in finding solutions to our vehicle needs for tomorrow. The second observation was how seamlessly this around-the-world communication system works. In my situation, it worked to provide information. In engineering an automobile, it allows 24-hour continuous development work, as the work done in one location is passed on to another location at the end of the work period. By the time the originating person has returned to work, other people have been advancing the design for 16 hours! The time it takes to bring a new product to market, or find that scientific breakthrough for a new propulsion system has been shortened to 1/3 of what it might have taken just a few years ago.

When we think of automobile technology, we usually think of the end product – the automobile itself. There is another complete aspect though, and it is about how the cars get to the showroom floor. I find both sides equally interesting.

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