When General Motors’ advanced technology supremo, Larry Burns, retired last year, Alan Taub was the man who stepped up to take control of GM’s global R&D division.
He joined GM in 2001, having been a specialist in crash safety and materials engineering for Ford and, before that, spending 15 years in R&D for General Electric. Here, he answers our questions about GM’s latest efforts in the technological avant-garde.
You’ve just introduced the EN-V, a two-wheeled electric city car concept that’s supposed to be impossible to crash. Could you ever put it into production?
The EN-V is designed to surprise people — to really make them consider how car-to-car communications, powertrain electrification and autonomous driving technology could change the cars we drive. It’s not really designed for the road but to do 30 indoor demonstration shows a day at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.
It shows what’s possible within 20 years, more than what’s probable. Still, something very like the EN-V could become a common sight in the megacities of the future. If we’re going to avoid terminal gridlock, let alone environmental meltdown, we’ll need cars like this.
Will autonomous cars actually work on real-world roads?
Not in isolation. It will take metropolitan and national government legislation to make inner-city zones accessible only to autonomous cars to really see the safety benefits of the technology. But I believe that will happen. One million people die in road traffic accidents every year around the world, and autonomous driving technology, working in tandem with car-to-car networking, could drastically reduce that figure.
Won’t it eventually make drivers totally redundant?
Not in our plan. I love driving, and I know that GM isn’t going to stop catering for driving enthusiasts. But I also know that there are times when you’d rather not drive. And you only have to look around at traffic lights to see people texting or emailing at the wheel. These people already see driving as the distraction.
What kind of cars should we expect to follow the Volt and Ampera in GM’s E-REV series?
With battery technology as it currently stands, extended-range vehicles that are larger than the Volt — luxury saloons, trucks and SUVs — aren’t really possible; they would simply be too heavy to be efficient. For those types of cars, fuel cells and biofuels are the future. Ironically enough, the E-REV powertrain won’t really package in a much smaller car than the Volt, either. So expect them all to be between four and five metres long.
What’s the state of hydrogen fuel cell technology as far as GM sees it?
Fuel cell technology is looking much cheaper today than it did a few years ago. Certain OEMS are now trialling fuel cells containing little or no precious metal at all. Within 12 years, we’re expecting an average family car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell to be as cheap to produce as one with an internal combustion engine, given that over the same period exhaust after-treatment systems are going to become more and more expensive in order to meet tougher emissions regulations.
Will battery technology ever eclipse the internal combustion engine in passenger cars?
When it comes to small cars, absolutely. With larger ones, the advantage you gain with an electric powertrain becomes less significant than the weight penalty associated with fitting enough batteries to run it. That will remain the case until the next big leap forward in battery technology after lithium ion.
But given the rising price of oil, it should become cheaper to buy and run an electrically powered supermini than a combustion-engined one before 2020.