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Federal funding for electric-car technology announced in GM visit

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Warren — Electric-car batteries and other advanced vehicle technologies will get a boost with $139 million in federal funding, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said on Thursday while visiting General Motors Co.'s Warren Technical Center to see the Detroit automaker's electric-vehicle development firsthand. 

But $139 million is just a tiny fraction of what's needed. GM, for instance, is pushing forward with plans to spend $20 billion on electric and autonomous vehicle development through 2025.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, left, tours GM's battery lab in Warren with Doug Parks. GM's vice president of global product development at GM.

The funds, Brouillette said, are not intended to build a research facility like GM has, but to be a part of what's being done in that facility. He said the Department of Energy can use its own expertise to help GM and other automakers with the technology, like by developing a substitute for the chemical makeup of the battery.

"If we can transfer that technology, or transfer that science or transfer that knowledge to the private sector, we will work very aggressively to do that," he said, noting that the government will also make sure there's a "diverse energy supply" to make sure the current electrical infrastructure isn't overwhelmed by thousands of electric vehicles on the road.

The money awarded Thursday will go to 55 projects, including six led by teams in Michigan. They include two totaling $15 million that develop lightweight fiber-reinforced polymer composites for vehicle applications.

A GM-led team is developing those plastics for high-volume manufacturing of battery enclosures. A team led by Ford Motor Co. will work with the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and others to develop composite structures with electronics integrated into them. Michigan State University’s Scale Up Research Facility is working with both teams.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, right, gets a closer look at vehicle batteries at GM's battery lab in Warren with Kent Helfrich, GM's executive director of global Electrification and battery systems.

Other projects will work on areas including advanced lithium-ion batteries, improving smart chargers and reducing rare-earth metals like platinum, lithium and cobalt in catalytic converters and electric motors.

Brouillette, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, was at GM's battery lab and its design dome to see a full lineup of future electric vehicles, including the GMC Hummer EV, which will be produced at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant, the first all-electric assembly plant for the Detroit automaker. Its Cruise Origin, an autonomous electric robotaxi will also be built there. 

The visit coincides with GM's sustainability report release that details GM's aggressive electric vehicle plans including making at least 20 battery-operated vehicles by 2023.

GM's push to sell 1 million electric vehicles globally by 2025 comes as consumers still aren't choosing to purchase them over internal-combustion offerings. EV sales only account for about 2% of the market and Tesla leads the pack. 

One roadblock is a lack of charging infrastructure that causes "range anxiety" among consumers. Another issue: The federal government offers a $7,500 tax credit for consumers buying electric vehicles, but automakers can only use the program until they reach a 200,000 cap, which GM and Tesla both have reached. 

"At this point the incentives are not available to all consumers on all vehicles," Dane Parker, GM's chief sustainability officer, said on a call Wednesday. "And there are inconsistent incentives that vary state-by-state. We are very much advocates of a national zero-emissions vehicle program, one that we proposed before and one that we feel is important so that there is a consistent focus, a consistent priority on true zero-emissions vehicles."

Last December, Congress backed down on including legislation in a spending bill that would have tripled the 200,000 cap. With regard to increasing the cap, Brouillette said he would "have to defer to the legislative folks who are working on that."

When it comes to infrastructure development for electric vehicles, Brouillette is more focused on making sure utilities are able to support the amount of energy needed to charge electric vehicles. 

"It's the nuclear power stations that we're going to need. It's the renewable energy we're going to need. It's the increased adoption of natural gas, you know to replace more carbon-intensive fuels," he said. "We have to have that industry transition as this industry transitions."

Brouillette saw electric vehicle development that GM showcased at its "EV Day"  in March, including its new Ultium battery, which GM says with have range options from 50 to 200 kWh, which the automaker estimates give a range of up to 400 miles or more on a full charge. The Chevrolet Bolt EV gets 259 miles a charge. Tesla recently made headlines for breaking the 400-mile range with its Model S. 

Both GM's future electric cars and trucks will offer a 300- to 400-mile range. "That's what we think is the right range where customers really start to say, 'I'm not so worried about range anxiety,'" Doug Parks, executive vice president of global product development at GM, said Thursday.

That range will be met with GM's new Cadillac Lyriq, an all-electric crossover being unveiled Aug. 6, and the GMC Hummer EV. A reveal date for the Hummer hasn't been set yet. 

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall