GM introduces 'Ultium Drive,' the power behind EVs

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co. is leveraging existing capabilities to design and manufacture its electric vehicle drive units in-house, helping the company make its transition to an all-electric automaker.

GM's future electric vehicles are expected to be powered by five drive units and three motors known as “Ultium Drive," the automaker said Wednesday. Ultium Drive components will be built with globally sourced parts at GM’s existing global propulsion facilities, which will allow the company to more quickly ramp up its electric vehicle production and adjust production mix to match market demand.

Rather than outsource for future technologies, GM is investing $20 billion through 2025 on electric and autonomous projects. The automaker has announced major investments and partnerships to help eliminate barriers that could prevent consumers from considering an electric vehicle, such as cost and range anxiety.

One of those investments is a multi-billion battery-cell manufacturing facility with LG Chem in northeast Ohio that will supply the cells for GM's new Ultium batteries, which GM partners Honda Motor Co. and electric vehicle startup Nikola Corp. also plan to use.

"We control our destiny more by having true ownership of understanding the total vertical integration of a drive unit or the battery pack and how it all goes together," Ken Morris, GM vice president of electric and autonomous vehicles, said during a Morgan Stanley virtual conference Wednesday. "We're creating knowledge and we're creating intellectual property, and the fact that it's all in house makes things much easier to deal with."

GM, Morris said, has more than 100 years of experience building engines and transmissions at scale and fast, "so getting the most efficient performing units ... as well as the easiest to build and build properly with high reliability, that's something that our company can do, as well,"

GM's 25 years of experience in electric vehicles helped to create a more efficient drive unit from previous generations, the automaker said. For example, the team behind Ultium Drive integrated power electronics into the drive units’ assemblies, reducing the weight of the power electronics by nearly 50% from GM’s previous EV generation, saving cost and space while increasing capability by 25%.

GM introduced its Ultium battery program during its EV Day in March. The automaker claims the Ultium batteries are unique to the industry because the large-format pouch-style cells can be stacked vertically or horizontally inside the battery pack, allowing designers to optimize battery storage and layout for each vehicle's design. 

Ultium Drive will combine electric motors and single-speed transmissions that apply the power created by GM’s Ultium battery cells to the wheels of electric vehicles. It covers front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive propulsion combinations, including high-performance and off-road capability. 

"It's all designed as part of a holistic system," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights. "Rather than taking off-the-shelf parts ... they've designed all those as part of a scalable platform. They can go front drive, rear drive, all wheel drive."  

The decision to create the drive units in-house, Abuelsamid said, is "another indication of their confidence of what kind of volumes they are going to be able to get from these electric vehicles."

Last week, GM and Nikola formed a 10-year alliance with Nikola Corp. to engineer and build the electric-vehicle startup's Badger pickup truck. GM will engineer and manufacture the Nikola Badger truck's battery-electric and fuel-cell versions. In exchange, Nikola will give GM $2 billion in newly issued common stock and an 11% stake in its company.

Honda and GM recently signed a memorandum of understanding toward establishing a strategic alliance in North America for product development and purchasing.

Meanwhile, Reuters has reported that GM is exploring the aerial taxi market after GM CEO Mary Barra earlier this week said at the RBC Capital Markets Global Industrial Virtual Conference : "We believe strongly in our EV future and not just for vehicles, the strength and flexibility of our Ultium battery systems open doors for many use cases, including aerial mobility, which represents a natural next step in a zero emissions vision."

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