Interview with Dan Nicholson, VP of General Motors Global Propulsion Systems
Powering GM’s Future
Consider the importance of engines and transmissions to our overall appreciation of, and satisfaction with, the cars, trucks, and SUVs we drive. Not just daily reliability, long-term durability, and the all-important balance between performance, capability, and efficiency, but also each system's smoothness, quietness, ease of operation, and serviceability. And beyond all those customer criteria are ever-tougher emissions and fuel economy requirements imposed by governments in every auto market around the world.
Gone are the days when an automaker could design, develop, build, and certify different engines, transmissions, and drivelines in and for each market its vehicles were sold. Today's relentlessly toughening sets of customer, government, and competitive requirements require a far more efficient global approach, with regional differences where necessary, which is the business model all multinational makers (who are not already there) are fast adopting.
General Motors Powertrain has been operating that way for many years, and this February it changed its name to GM Global Propulsion Systems (GMGPS) to further reflect not only that global reach but also the scope and diversity of the work it does on not just gasoline and diesel engines, transmissions, and drive axles, but also on a wide variety of electrified systems. “The new name is another step on our journey to redefine transportation and mobility,” said Global Product Development Executive Vice President Mark Reuss at the time.
In addition to a range of three-, four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines, its output includes 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-speed and continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and a diverse assortment of battery (BEV), gas/electric hybrid (HEV), and fuel cell (FCEV) electric propulsion systems. With its headquarters in Pontiac, Michigan, and branches in Brazil, Germany, Italy, India, China, Korea, and Australia, GMGPS currently employs nearly 8,700 people whose jobs are to design, develop, validate, and calibrate propulsion-related products and controls for GM worldwide.
We recently caught up with GMGPS Vice President Dan Nicholson to learn more.
Work Truck Review: How important is the propulsion system in terms of sales success and customer satisfaction?
Dan Nicholson: Critically important. Our corporate leadership and Global Product Development under Mark Reuss give us great cooperation, because they know how important propulsion systems are. We have had very good examples—and a few bad ones—so we know that if we don't do the job really, really well, the customer tells us we have missed the mark. We are driven to have great product, which only comes with great teamwork, so we are very focused on this, and you're seeing that in our products. The propulsion system lineup in the new Chevrolet Camaro, for example, is the best it's ever been, with a 2.0L turbo that is better than I think anybody could have imagined, the best V-6 we've ever had by far, and the V-8 is on top with very broad power bands. Silverado and Sierra also have dynamite lineups, and we have great eight-speed transmissions and a couple of other things coming that we've talked about.
WTR: Why the name change?
DN: It makes a statement and reflects who we are today and helps people understand we are working on a broad portfolio of propulsion systems for General Motors, including the battery-electric Chevrolet Bolt, the extended-range Volt, and all kinds of electrification. Global was already in our name, since we have been running our business globally for 10 years or more, and I think we are among the leaders as many regions and countries around the world are working on decreasing emissions and increasing convergence in technology and solutions.
The powertrain world was very different 20 years ago, with little overlap between the engines we sold in Europe, for example, and the ones we sold in North America...and we just started selling engines in China 20 years ago. Now they are all very similar and converging, though not identical because there are still consumer preference and segment differences. The fullsize truck segment, for example, doesn't really exist outside North America.
WTR: You have said that that nearly 50 percent of your people are working on electrification and other alternative propulsion systems.
DN: Nearly half are touching and actively involved in alternative and electrified propulsion system work, but that doesn't mean those programs are 50 percent of our workload or budget. Our small-gas-engine team, for example, works on three- and four-cylinder engines for a wide variety of applications, including the range extender in the Chevrolet Volt. So the team working on the Volt range extender is counted in that 50 percent.
And we're doing some very unconventional things in so-called "conventional" powertrains. Because of advancements in computer modeling of combustion and other areas, we're doing things today that we could only dream about 10 years ago. We just introduced our award-winning second-generation 3.6L "high-feature" V-6 with Active Fuel Management cylinder deactivation in high-end Cadillacs for the first time. That is a really good technology that we're continuing to develop and expand in terms of the number of applications and how often it can be used. We're also proud of our stop/start technology in terms of fast response, smoothness, and lack of intrusiveness. And there are technologies in the 1.5L gas engine for the Chevrolet Malibu, for example, that were unthinkable 10 years ago. Evolution, refinement, and customer acceptance is what makes those things count.
WTR: We're guessing your relationships with the vehicle teams are getting closer than ever because you almost have to design simultaneously with them.
DN: Yes, that is more and more important, and an area where we have made a lot of progress. When customers buy our vehicles, what they care about is a propulsion system that is very well integrated into the vehicle. Making sure the system is properly integrated into the vehicle and the electrical control system so that it's quiet, refined, and delivers the right fuel economy. Whether it's Silverado, Camaro, Malibu, Cruze, Volt, Bolt, or whatever, we are organized to ensure great cooperation between the propulsion system and vehicle line teams.
WTR: Anything more on trucks that you would like to add?
DN: A couple of things. First, Colorado and Canyon offer the only diesels in the midsize segment, so we are really proud to give customers in that segment a choice. We are bullish on diesel opportunity in North America, so it would be a pity if the negative notoriety of late causes the diesel market to go backward here in light-duty trucks. The other thing is the centrifugal pendulum vibration absorber (CPVA), a new technology that’s integrated into the transmission torque converter to cancel out the engine’s torsional vibrations so the driver and passengers can’t feel them. That gives us a much smoother propulsion system, which allows us to go down to lower engine speeds. So where before we might have had to unlock the torque converter at 1,500 rpm, we can now go even lower with this CPVA technology. We did it first on the diesel, but you might see gasoline-engine applications of it sometime in the future. Every bit counts in this fuel economy war, so that is something customers should be looking for in the Colorado/Canyon diesel.
The bottom line is that all automakers are investing a lot of money and resources in propulsion systems, because they are so important to everything going forward. We are working very hard to get more done with the resources we have, and we're getting a lot more value out of every dollar spent than we did five or 10 years ago.