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Q&A with GM's hybrid chief Robert Kruse

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RK: There's been a lot of speculation.... I will tell you, though, we've been able to meet the business team targets for the batteries and the cells themselves. And it does allow, from a financial standpoint, the early Volts to be viable. But I also will acknowledge that any of this new technology is very expensive, particularly in a Gen-one configuration. As we look to the future, to having larger and larger portions of our portfolio being electrically driven vehicles, it becomes increasingly clear we need to address the costs associate with the technology.... You're familiar with a concept of a learning curve. Well, there's a cost curve with any new technology and lithium-ion batteries are no exception.... So as knowledge and volume go up, costs come down.

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Because costs are such a significant driver of the adoption of this technology, it's a very strategic issue to me. Traditional development would have me develop my Gen-one system, launch it, learn from it, figure out what I need to do to develop my Gen-two system, launch, learn, figure out what I need for Gen-three. To help jump start and accelerate down this learning curve, in addition to the Gen-one battery system, I'm right now also working on Gen-two and Gen-three solutions that have elements of both performance and cost that are part of my expectations of my team to deliver future-gen systems.

On safety, cell chemistry, and the critical issue of "thermal runaway" in which lithium batteries have been known to burst into flames:

RK: There are many layers of safety built into the Volt. That includes all the way down to the cell level. You can't look at chemistry separate from construction. But the large-format prismatic cells, together with the chemistry, together with the separator which separates the anodes from cathodes inside the individual cell, is absolutely key to making sure that you do not have thermal runaway. We have adopted [independent] safety standards and have employed those requirements into our cell and pack designs. I can assure you we've met those standards with what we've designed and what we've selected.

On whether it is important to have a US lithium-battery manufacturer for vehicles in the United States:

RK: GM is a global player, as we have a global supply footprint. We go wherever the best, most efficient parts are. If and when there is a lithium-ion cell manufacturing footprint in the US, they will come onto our radar and get appropriate consideration. It's important to recognize that other governments have recognized that this is of strategic importance and have made significant investment in developing this kind of capability. It is now beginning to come onto the radar of others. Other countries are a little bit behind. It doesn't mean they won't catch up, but for the first-generation Volt, there were a lot of advantages to what had already been created and existed outside the United States.

On GM's push to have nine hybrid models by this summer and how broadly lithium-ion battery technology will figure in the future GM fleet:

RK: Those nine vehicles you talked about, those existing hybrids, use nickel-metal hybrid technology batteries. I will tell you, all my advanced development is geared toward various lithium-ion chemistries and construction. We have previously announced that our next generation base system will be a lithium-ion battery that comes from Hitachi. If you look at the long-term cost projections for nickel metal, and what's going to happen for lithium, together with total reserves, energy density, cost, and mass – all favor lithium-ion technology. That's why you see the industry moving toward it.

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