By Braden Reddall and Ben Klayman
HOUSTON/DETROIT, March 6 General Motors Co aims to improve vehicle fuel efficiency by trimming weight, even as it develops electric cars with a range of up to 200 miles to eliminate the need for gasoline altogether, the U.S. automaker's chief executive said on Wednesday.
Dan Akerson also told a meeting of energy executives and investors that GM's new Spark EV would have a range of 75 miles to 80 miles (120-129 km) on a single charge - double the electric-only range of its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. The Spark is due to go on sale this summer.
The CEO saw the Spark as basically an urban car because of consumer concerns about what many in the industry call range anxiety - the fear of getting stuck without power on the side of the road. GM has touted the Volt for its electric driving range of 40 miles that is then augmented by a gasoline engine.
But the company is working on new EVs, including one with a 100-mile range and another with 200-mile range. "If you had a 200-mile range car, that may radically change the calculus," he said at the IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston.
Akerson went on to describe a giant inductive pad under development, which can sit in a garage and charge a homeowner's vehicle every night. Inductive charging technology has not been rolled into any GM products, but the company did invest $5 million in wireless charging start-up Powermat in 2011.
A spokesman declined to comment further on Wednesday, saying GM would not discuss future vehicle development or technologies.
Ravi Brar, CEO of EV charging station company ECOtality Inc , pointed out that while a 200-mile range would still not allow for an especially long road trip, it was a "sweet spot" for most people's average daily drive.
"It'll be really interesting to see what the timeframe is" for such a car's introduction, said Brar, whose company is exploring ways to reduce range anxiety for EV drivers.
Improving battery life is a priority for many. LG Chem said in October a new generation of power packs would debut in 2015 with GM.
Regarding the tough European car market, Akerson said the closure of a German plant put capacity more in line with demand, but it looked like European auto demand would decline by 8 percent to 10 percent this year.
In the speech, he discussed reduction of vehicle mass by up to 15 percent through the 2016-model year - unveiled in late 2015. "A good rule of thumb is that a 10 percent reduction in curb weight will reduce fuel consumption by about 6.5 percent."
Akerson called on President Barack Obama to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to develop a 30-year U.S. energy policy framework with checkpoints every five years.
He said it should include energy producers, labor groups, and energy consumers such as GM, working together to negotiate targets. The U.S. auto industry is already pressing to meet a government requirement for corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon (23.2 km per liter) by 2025.
Last year, GM said it aimed to produce up to 500,000 vehicles a year with some form of electrification by 2017, including the Volt. On Wednesday, Akerson said that would save 12 billion gallons (45.4 billion liters) of fuel over the life of the vehicles GM builds between 2011 and 2017.
Natural gas as a motor fuel represents a "huge and largely untapped opportunity for commercial fleets and long-haul truckers," Akerson said, adding energy diversity was critical.
Nearly every president since Richard Nixon, he noted, has grappled with high oil costs and the solutions have largely consisted of curbing demand via regulation and incentives to speed the adoption of alternative energy. Policymakers have not established a long-term, cohesive energy policy.
In addition to lighter vehicles and more electrification, GM is investing in advanced materials such as nano steels and carbon fiber, deploying clean diesel engines, rolling out such technologies as turbocharging and direct injection, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions in manufacturing, Akerson said.