General Motors aims to cut the weight of its North American vehicles by as much as 15 percent by the 2016 model year, compared with GM's current fleet, CEO Dan Akerson said today.
GM estimates that a 10 percent reduction in curb weight cuts fuel consumption by about 6.5 percent.
To reach that goal, Akerson said, GM is "aggressively investing" in new materials and technologies such as carbon fiber, nanosteel and resistance spot welding for aluminum structures.
"But if you're worried that we're going to throw safety, comfort and performance out of the window to get there, you can breathe easy," Akerson said during an address to a Houston energy conference.
He noted that the 2013 Cadillac ATS is lighter than the similar sized BMW 3 series.
GM has said that it is targeting major weight savings for its vehicles, which typically are heavier than rivals', hurting fuel economy. But it had not stated an across-the-board goal for weight reduction.
In his remarks, Akerson also touched on electric vehicles and compressed natural gas. He also urged the Obama administration to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to develop a national energy policy.
Akerson said GM is working on developing an electric car that has a range of as much as 200 miles.
"There will be breakthroughs in battery technology, they're on the horizon," Akerson said today during a presentation at the IHS CERAWeek energy conference broadcast on CNBC.com.
"We're actually developing a car today which is really anathema to the way the auto industry works: We're running a dual play on the technology to see which one will succeed. One will result in" a 100-mile range, "the other will be a 200-mile range."
The CEO reiterated GM's plans to have about 500,000 vehicles on the road by 2017 with some form of electrification, including the Chevrolet Volt, which can go 38 miles on battery power, and he also pointed to work GM is doing with diesel and compressed-natural gas, according to the prepared remarks.
"Everywhere you look there are opportunities to seize the energy high ground," Akerson said. "Indeed, our leaders have been presented with an historic opportunity to create a national energy policy from a position of strength and abundance. The pillars of such a plan must include energy diversity, so we do not become dependent on any one fuel or energy source."
V-8s will live on
In an effort to improve the efficiency of GM's gasoline engines, Akerson said the company is using technologies such as turbocharging, direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation.
Implementation of these technologies, Akerson said, means that the death of the V-8 engine has been "greatly exaggerated," which he called good news for fans of the Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro and GM's pickups.
"It's counterintuitive, but as our Corvette chief engineer explains, when one of GM's all-new V-8s runs as a four-cylinder, it produces enough torque to stay in that mode for a very long time, which helps return better fuel economy than smaller engines," Akerson said.
"This is a very big deal, especially for our truck customers who want the power of a V-8 when they need it for acceleration, hauling or towing, and the fuel efficiency of a smaller engine when they don't."
EVs going forward
Akerson said it's a sport for some to "poke fun" at EVs, but the era of using electricity to boost performance and fuel economy has arrived and that the trend will only grow going forward.
The automaker's electrified strategy will be centered on the all-electric Chevrolet Spark; Cadillac ELR and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids; and eAssist technology that helps large sedans such as the Buick LaCrosse reach up to 36 mpg on the highway.
Akerson also said the new Spark EV would have a range of 75 miles to 80 miles without a charge -- double the electric-only range of its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. The Spark is due to go on sale this summer.
Add up all the parts of the automaker's fuel-economy plan, Akerson said, and the result will be saving 12 billion gallons of fuel over the life of GM vehicles built between 2011 and 2017.
"That's 675 million barrels of oil we won't need -- a figure nearly equal to our oil imports from the Persian Gulf in 2011," said Akerson, who emphasized that the United States must develop all forms of domestic energy, including renewables.
'Huge' CNG opportunity
Akerson also said CNG is a "huge" opportunity for commercial fleets and long-haul truckers.
A light-duty fleet of 5,000 could potentially save $10 million or more by moving to CNG, he said.
"That's a powerful demand stimulus, and a key reason why we recently expanded our portfolio to include three-quarter-ton bifuel pickups and dedicated CNG-powered vans," Akerson said.
With a switch to liquefied natural gas, a Class 8 heavy-duty truck operator could get savings of as much as $3,500 per month and get a positive return on the investment in as little as two years despite more expensive equipment.
More work needs to be done, though, to keep CNG and liquefied natural gas from falling into niche status, he said.
There are around 1,200 CNG stations in the United States, with half of them concentrated in five states. LNG, so far, only has about 66 stations in 10 states.
Blue ribbon panel
Akerson also said President Obama should create a blue ribbon commission tasked with forming a 30-year energy policy framework with checkpoints every five years.
Said Akerson: "The commission needs to include a broad cross section of energy producers and energy consumers, and they should be given a straightforward charge: Develop a plan to improve our standard of living by extending the duration of the natural gas and tight-oil 'dividend' for as long as possible."
Bloomberg and Reuters contributed to this report.