Can General Motors’ Ultium Drive Help Automaker Get Its Mojo Back?

Can General Motors’ Ultium Drive Help Automaker Get Its Mojo Back?


There has been a lot of head-scratching going on in Detroit for years now about the public’s infatuation with upstart Tesla Motors and there is even more head-scratching about the stock market’s flat-out love affair with the California-based electric-vehicle maker. The capital markets, in particular, seem absolutely head-over-heels in love with Tesla Motors, while those same markets give short shrift to General Motors and its longtime rival, Ford Motor Company. We’ll get into why that may be in a moment, but let’s pose the big question first: Can GM’s Ultium Drive electric-vehicle toolkit vault GM into the ranks of the “cool kids” or, despite the technological prowess the system demonstrates, will the hidebound automaker be consigned to the ranks of boring brick-and-mortar manufacturers that are past their use-by date?

When one takes a simple (and perhaps simplistic) look at global vehicle sales performance and market capitalization, the picture strains credulity. Last year GM sold about 7.7 million vehicles globally and its current market cap is $51.10 billion. In the same period (2019) Tesla Motors sold 367,500 vehicles globally and its current market cap is $391.73 billion. (Just to show you that GM is not on an island by itself, here are the similar stats for Ford Motor Company: 5.4 million vehicle sales in 2019; current market capitalization $31.23 billion.)

Clearly, the market thinks that Tesla Motors has some elusive, undefinable je ne sais quoi that the 100+ year-old General Motors just can’t seem to muster. And GM isn’t alone; Ford can’t seem to muster it either, but that elusive quality seems to revolve around the fact that all of Tesla Motor’s sales are electric vehicles, while only a small fraction of GM’s exponentially higher sales total are EVs. It is as if the stock market is saying, “Don’t tell me about your conventional vehicle sales; I don’t care about that. All I care about are the sales of EVs.” It is apparent the collective consciousness believes EVs are the vehicles of the future and, further, that Tesla Motors is synonymous with EVs.

The big American carmakers have decoded this, and that is undoubtedly why the TV airwaves are filled with ads for the electric Ford Mustang Mach e that isn’t even on sale yet. And why GM just this past week introduced the GMC Hummer EV, a vehicle that juxtaposes the environmental friendliness of an electric vehicle with the name of one of the most profligate users of fossil fuel in automotive history. (And for doing that I salute GM mightily.)

Is Ultium Drive a Silver Bullet?

So this brings us back to the question about GM Ultium Drive, the technology that supports the Hummer EV and the technology that is primed and ready to support scores of other full-electric vehicles from GM. Can this tech, and the vehicles that are created using it, enable GM to sit at the cool kids’ table or will it have to remain with the nerds in the back corner of the cafeteria?

For those with short memories, GM has a lengthy history with EVs dating back to 1996 when the company introduced its General Motors EV1 battery-electric car to the market. (And when Elon Musk was still attending the Wharton School.) Though it was the darling of the environmental set, the small car’s extremely limited range made it impractical for most buyers, and it vanished from the market by the year 2000.

Despite not being a commercial success — and it wasn’t really intended to be — the development of the EV1 taught lessons GM engineers put into use as they developed subsequent models like the Chevrolet Volt hybrid and the Chevrolet Bolt battery-electric cars. GM’s Ultium Drive, a system of drive units and electric motors that will form the underpinnings of the next generation of GM EVs, is the next logical progression in that evolution.

The Components of Ultium Drive

Ultium Drive is an Erector set of electric motors, single-speed transmissions, and proprietary-formula battery cells intended to propel GM’s upcoming array of electric vehicles. The automaker says vehicles that use the Ultium modular drivetrain architecture could offer driving ranges of up to 400 miles on a full charge and 0 to 60 mph acceleration as low as 3.0 seconds.

The GMC Hummer EV is the first expression of that to go on sale to the public, and the vehicle’s numbers are startling. GM estimates its combined horsepower at a best-in-class 1,000, while peak torque is estimated to be 11,500 lb.-ft. of torque. This immense amount of go-power is generated by three separate motors within two Ultium drive units.

Among the Hummer EV’s unique bag of tricks is 4 Wheel Steer featuring CrabWalk, a segment-exclusive feature that allows the rear wheels and front wheels to steer at the same angle at low speeds, enabling the Hummer to move diagonally. It’s useful for both extreme off-roading and parallel parking in tight city parking places.

The Hummer EV’s adaptive air suspension features what GM calls Extract Mode, which enables the suspension height to be raised approximately six inches when that would prove helpful for clearing boulders, fording water, or just showing off.

“We had one goal for Hummer EV — Build the most capable factory truck ever,” said Al Oppenheiser, chief engineer on the project. “It’s an absolute off-road beast with a unique e4WD drive system that provides maneuverability unlike anything GM has ever offered before.”

Maybe Oppenheiser isn’t taking that far enough. It would be safe to say the Hummer EV promises to deliver maneuverability and capabilities unlike any manufacturer has ever offered before in a production truck.

The Hummer EV is obvious proof that in Ultium Drive GM has the tools to transition its current portfolio of vehicles to a fully electric lineup that will offer consumers cars, trucks, and SUVs that have significant advantages over vehicles powered by conventional internal combustion engines. The collection of components can be mixed and matched to power a wide range of vehicles, offering General Motors advantages in performance, scale, speed to market, and manufacturing efficiency versus assembling EVs on a piecemeal basis. Further, it makes a very clear statement that GM intends to be a major player in the electric vehicle market.

So there is little doubt that within the halls of General Motors the technology to take on all comers in the EV arena is alive and well. Clearly, too, GM management from GM CEO Mary Barra on down appears committed to making the company a worldwide force in the new world of electric vehicles. The question remains is will the public believe it and respond? Or will Tesla Motors’ je ne sais quoi and the cult of personality surrounding its idiosyncratic leader, Elon Musk, continue to exclude General Motors from the cool kids’ table? Those, frankly, are multi-billion-dollar questions.

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