SAN FRANCISCO -- General Motors' future green-car efforts will focus on plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles rather than conventional hybrid powertrains, product chief Mary Barra said today.
Barra said GM has narrowed its future development emphasis in an effort to defend its leadership position attained with the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. GM will unveil an electric Spark minicar this month at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
"A major focus for GM's electrification strategy will center on the plug," Barra said via a satellite feed to reporters gathered here for a GM event. She added that plug-ins offer "a unique opportunity to change the way people commute" and that Volt owners "love the ability to refuel at home."
Barra said she has worked with her global team over the past few months to narrow GM's electrification focus. In the past, GM sought to "cover the waterfront" by pursuing myriad powertrain technologies, but that approach is too costly and inefficient, she said.
"We need to make educated bets on which technologies hold the most potential for creating values for our customers and our company," Barra said.
Traditional hybrid technology, a realm now dominated by Toyota Motor Corp., "is important, of course," Barra said. "But we think plug-in technology will play an increasingly important role over the years to come."
The strategy leaves GM with a heavy focus on both ends of the electrification spectrum: so-called pure EVs at one end and plug-in hybrids, along with its eAssist mild-hybrid technology, which uses a much smaller battery and small electric motor to assist the gasoline engine under certain conditions, at the other.
Unlike hybrid powertrains, mild hybrids can't propel the vehicle under electric power alone. Barra said GM's eAssist technology provides about 25 percent better fuel economy than a standard powertrain in some vehicles, such as the Buick LaCrosse.
GM launched eAssist on the LaCrosse last year and since has added the technology to the Buick Regal and Chevrolet Malibu. It will be offered as an option on the Chevrolet Impala when the redesigned version hits showrooms early next year.
Through October, GM has sold more than 26,000 eAssist vehicles, Barra said. By 2017, GM expects to sell 500,000 vehicles a year globally with some form of electrification, from mild hybrids to pure electrics, Barra said. That would equal about 6 percent of the roughly 9 million vehicles GM sold globally in 2011.
GM's sharper focus on EVs and plug-in hybrids comes despite tepid sales of EVs such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i.
GM has found relative success with the Volt, sales of which have far eclipsed the Leaf since both cars were launched with much fanfare in late 2010.
Through October this year, GM sold 19,309 Volts, vs. 5,003 in the year-earlier period. Leaf sales sank 16 percent, to 6,791, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
GM believes the Volt's extended-range technology gives it an advantage over the Leaf and other EVs by eliminating consumers' range anxiety. The Volt runs for about 38 miles in electric mode before a small gasoline generator kicks in to power the car's electric engine, giving the car a total range of about 380 miles.
GM has not yet disclosed the range of the Spark EV.