DETROIT -- Ask Dan Nicholson about a certain powertrain or technology, and he won't say why it can't be done. Chances are, he'll explain where it fits in General Motors' ambitious global powertrain portfolio.
Nicholson, 51, who took over as GM's vice president of global powertrain late last year, helps decide which technologies deserve GM's investment. Nicholson spoke recently with Staff Reporter Richard Truett at GM's Warren, Mich., technical center.
Q: From small-displacement diesel engines to various hybrids, GM offers an array of powertrains. Where does the company go from here?
A: We intend to cover a broad range of technologies because we think that's what's called for in today's marketplace, with lots of tailpipe emissions and CO2 concerns, and with very demanding customers and with very intense competition. So, it pays to cover the ranges. Going forward, we'll continue to cover the range of propulsion systems, and we're going to keep working on refining them and improving them. So long as we are never out of ideas, we'll continue on that path.
What if some of GM's powertrains don't make money, maybe because of changing consumer demands?
We are managing our propulsion systems like a portfolio of innovation investments. We know some of these won't pay off, at least in the short term. We plan to be flexible in our investments. And if we are right, like any good portfolio manager 80 or 90 percent of the time, then I think that is going to be successful for us.
GM has a number of partnerships with other companies, such as the GM-Ford transmission joint venture and the GM-Honda fuel cell project. Is that the way forward to rein in engineering costs?
We want to be innovation leaders, and we are focusing on innovation. We think being innovation leaders makes us an attractive partner, both for other OEMs and for key suppliers. We want to be the partner of choice -- that really lends flexibility to us. We don't have a strict partnering strategy; we have an innovation strategy that makes us an attractive partner.
Does GM see dual-clutch transmissions ever breaking out of niche status in the United States?
We're watching the U.S. market very closely. We have a DCT in the marketplace in China right now. We have some of the best design development capability in the industry, and we're ready to jump into the U.S. market when the time is right.
What's your view on continuously variable transmissions in the U.S.?
We have a CVT in the Chevrolet Spark. I think they have a future in the U.S. as well as other markets. When I look at J.D. Power IQS numbers, there is pretty wide variation in customer acceptance of the many applications that are out there. I think it is possible, if done correctly, to be successful in the U.S. with a CVT. We're very proud of the Chevy Spark; it's the best driving Spark we've ever done. I think it is a technology we'll see a bit more of in the future. I see CVTs on the upswing.
There's a 707-hp Dodge, and Chevrolet has introduced a 650-hp Corvette. Is the industry in a horsepower war in the middle of escalating fuel economy standards?
I don't want to refer to it as a horsepower war. In the '60s, those were cars that had very powerful engines and four-wheel drum brakes and hardly any steering. We think of it now as a total performance package, where we have cars that not only accelerate great but stop and handle great.
Does fuel economy technology that the customer has to pay extra for need to pay for itself?
With regard to diesels, I think the value proposition for customers is made up of a lot of things. It depends a little bit segment by segment. Customers find fuel economy important, not just mpg, but in range. Customers don't find the refueling experience the highlight of their day. So if they can spread that out from once a week to once every 10 days, that adds a bit of value. The drive quality and driving character with the low-speed torque that diesels are known for is a customer benefit.
Have lower fuel prices affected GM Powertrain's product planning?
In terms of product development, we've got relatively long lead times. So we have to not look at fuel prices six months ahead of time but further ahead. Our product plans are not just driven by fuel prices, but by CO2 requirements and other things. Short-term, segment-by-segment sales don't impact our long-term plans. We're moving forward to have the right technologies that please our customers.