GM shifts r&d role to meet new realities

Jon Lauckner, GM's chief technical officer, outlined Chevrolet's connectivity initiatives in June 2015 in Detroit.

For most of its existence, General Motors r&d has focused on investigating technologies that might be deployed in automobiles decades down the road.

In the 1950s, for instance, GM was already thinking about how to engineer autonomous vehicles. In the mid-1960s, GM engineers built the world’s first fuel-cell powered automobile, the Electrovan.

About a decade ago, GM’s researchers performed pioneering work on homogenous charge compression ignition, or HCCI, engines. An HCCI engine is an internal combustion engine that switches ignition modes based on speed and load and runs either like a gasoline engine, using spark plugs, or like a diesel, using high compression to ignite the fuel. The technology has the potential to boost fuel economy impressively, but there are many problems with emissions and noise that GM engineers have yet to crack.

Today, GM researchers, working in four locations around the globe, are focused more on developing products and technologies that can be put into production in years, not decades. And the man overseeing the operation is Jon Lauckner, a 37-year GM veteran who is also president of GM Ventures, a business unit that makes investments in technology startup companies. It’s another way GM is hoping to reduce the time it takes to get new ideas from the drawing board to the showroom.

Lauckner, one of the executives who managed the Chevrolet Volt’s gestation from concept to production, took over as head of GM r&d in 2012 after Alan Taub retired. Since then Lauckner has kept a fairly low profile. He has let other GM execs handle the media spotlight while he quietly expanded the focus of r&d to include not just technologies that can wind up in vehicles but those that can improve GM’s manufacturing processes.

One of the first big innovations to come from r&d under Lauckner’s tenure is GM’s patented spot welding system for aluminum and a method of welding steel to aluminum. Both technologies are just now ramping up on the Cadillac CT6.

Another recent investment, in a company called SDC Materials Inc. in Tempe, Ariz., has produced a new type of catalytic converter that eliminates as much as 60 percent of the platinum and other precious metals in the pollution control device.

It’s not clear yet if GM will someday install the new converter on new vehicles or if dealers will be able to offer it for repairs for older cars, saving consumers a lot of money.

I recently visited with Lauckner at his office in GM’s sprawling Warren, Mich., tech center outside Detroit. Although he has preferred to let other GM executives introduce some of the things his department has championed, Lauckner is comfortable, relaxed and well-spoken about his role and the road ahead.

Lauckner, who writes some very hefty checks on behalf of GM, says his role is not unlike that of an investment manager. He’s looking to fund ideas, generated internally and elsewhere, that can be used to improve GM vehicles or the company’s manufacturing efficiency in the near term.

“I would say the sweet spot is 5-7 years from production. That is a bit different than it has been in the past,” Lauckner says. “The majority of our budget goes into mainstream innovation, the kinds of things that are on a technology roadmap that you could describe with some level of detail going into the future.

“We also set aside a portion of our budget [for] what we refer to as internal startups. We set aside a significant portion of our budget each year to fund off-roadmap projects, game-changers, breakthrough innovations, high-risk projects, not things on the technology roadmap.”

Some of the projects that GM researchers are working on and that the company has invested in include engine technologies such as the next generation of cylinder cutoff systems. GM has invested in Tula Technology Inc. The Silicon Valley startup aims to perfect its Dynamic Skip Fire system, which would allow a V-8 engine to run on one cylinder.

Lauckner believes the system could be in production by 2020, yielding fuel economy savings as high as 20 percent on some vehicles.

While it is really cool to look back at some of the future ideas GM r&d explored many decades ago, none of them put money in the automaker’s bank account.

Lauckner has changed that. He says GM already has licensed its patented aluminum spot welding system to other companies.

You can reach Richard Truett at

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