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GM Signals End to Conventional Hybrids, Doubling Down on Plug-Ins Like Volt

Posted by Dale Buss on November 14, 2012 04:58 PM

General Motors is saying "uncle" in a key area of vehicle electrification: conventional hybrids. At the same time, the automaker indicated today that it'll redouble efforts to stake out a brand-defining position on one end of the electrified-vehicle spectrum, in highly electrified so-called "plug-in" hybrids like Chevrolet Volt and in all-electric vehicles.

The move essentially is surrendering the conventional-hybrid field to Toyota, which created and is dominating that segment with the Prius sub-brand. Interestingly, GM's move — ceding what once was a prime battlefield in green cars, where it invested heavily — comes at the same time that its cross-town rival, Ford, has just introduced an entirely new hybrid-only brand, C-Max, to battle Prius in the U.S. market.

Mary Barra, GM's product chief, told reporters today that the company has narrowed its future development plans to emphasize plug-ins like Volt, and EVs such as the all-electric version of the new Chevrolet Spark that GM will unveil at the Los Angeles Auto Show this month. Both kinds of cars are propelled only by batteries, while conventional hybrids rely on a combination of an electric motor and a gasoline engine.

"We need to make educated bets on which technologies hold the most potential for creating values for our customers and our company," Barra stated, echoing remarks she recently made to Autoline (above).

A few months ago, GM confirmed that it was shutting down its previous plans for future versions of a type of conventional-hybrid powertrain that has been offered in its pickup trucks and SUVs. But GM also has been introducing some new so-called "mild" hybrids that only lightly assist the gasoline engine under its eAssist sub-brand, including versions of the Buick Regal and Chevrolet Malibu; it will continue to invest in eAssist, Barra indicated.

Barra conceded that the conventional-hybrid technology occupying the middle ground between plug-ins and EVs on one end, and mild hybrids on the other, remained "important, of course," the magazine said. But she emphasized that "plug-in technology will play an increasingly important role over the years to come."

In other words, GM is doubling down on its trailblazing investment in Volt and the extended-range technology that supports it, as well as all-electric vehicles. Though Volt has been selling at the rate of only a couple thousand units a month, two years after its launch and in the midst of a doubling of gasoline prices, GM executives are confident that the car and its underlying technology will gradually catch on.

Toyota made a similarly large but opposite bet recently, putting more resources behind Prius and saying that it will de-emphasize EVs. Toyota faced a hiccup today with Prius becauseabout 670,000 Prius hybrids were included in the company's second significant recall in a few weeks, of 2.77 million vehicles worldwide to fix a possible water-pump problem and steering defect.

Meanwhile, only Ford still seems to be trying to do it all on the electrification spectrum.

Sorting out the winners and losers in this battle will be, well, electrifying.


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