DETROIT -- That General Motors rolled out a battery-powered electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt, at the Detroit auto show on Monday should be no surprise.
Some think the Bolt is GM’s way of raising a middle finger to Tesla, or at least slowing Elon Musk’s juggernaut. That likely isn’t why the Bolt exists, though it may accomplish both.
Yes, the Bolt provides GM with a competitor to Tesla’s planned small sedan, the Model 3, coming in 2017, as well as the Nissan Leaf. But, looking further down the road, the Bolt may have another mission entirely.
In 2013, GM and Honda signed an agreement to develop fuel cell technology for production vehicles. GM’s goal is to get a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle in production around 2020. The Bolt likely will provide the basis for GM’s first regular production fuel cell vehicle.
At the Detroit auto show on Monday, I asked Mark Reuss, GM’s global product development chief, if the Bolt’s basic bones could be used in a future GM fuel cell vehicle. He wouldn’t confirm or deny that.
Before GM skidded into bankruptcy in June 2009, the company’s fuel cell technology was among the world’s best. GM engineers not only reduced the size of the fuel cell stack to that of a small four-cylinder engine, but it had started patenting a process to mass produce the components inside the fuel cell stack.
But that work had to be put on a back burner while GM got its financial house in order. Then came the deal with Honda. Both companies trail Hyundai and Toyota, but this is a race in which the lead constantly changes.
“In an electric car, the motor doesn’t care where the electricity comes from,” says Larry Nitz, GM’s executive director for hybrid and electric powertrain engineering.
With the Bolt, GM can remove the battery pack and replace it with the fuel cell without having to design a fuel cell vehicle from the wheels up. The Bolt, a hatchback about the size of a Ford Focus, should have ample room for a hydrogen fuel tank, since no battery pack is needed.
While GM says the Bolt will be priced around $30,000, lighting up the monthly sales scoreboard won’t be the car’s most important mission. Instead, GM will be testing the electric motor and power electronics.
The technology and the expertise to create the Bolt was not a big stretch for GM. Not only does the company retain the knowledge it gained from engineering the EV1 in the 1990s, it has a deep bench of hardware and perhaps the most experienced bench in the business when it comes to designing and calibrating gasoline-electric hybrids.
While Toyota may dominate the market with the Prius, whose basic powertrain layout has changed little this decade, GM’s depth of engineering hybrid experience, I would argue, is far greater. GM has built and sold mild hybrids, the two-mode hybrid, the range-extended Volt, and was among the first automakers to introduce stop-start systems. GM even built trucks that could be used as portable power stations.
Today, GM’s fuel cell operations are housed in the company’s sprawling world headquarters for powertrain engineering in Pontiac, Mich. From the now concluded Project Driveway program in which GM built and leased 119 fuel cell Chevrolet Equinox crossovers, the company has nearly 3 million real-world miles on its fuel cell odometer.
Plenty of skeptics will kick GM for building the Bolt, especially with gasoline prices tanking and sales of electrics and hybrids sinking. That’s short-term thinking.
With California building the nation’s first fuel cell refueling infrastructure, GM is doing the right thing by building the Bolt and preparing the technology for hydrogen fuel cells.