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GM's ambitious battery plans

2009-01-13 13:47

General Motors, a wounded company living on cash borrowed from the US government, didn't behave like one Monday as it unveiled ambitious plans to research and assemble lithium-ion batteries in Michigan and picked a Korean company to supply the cells to power the Chevrolet Volt electric car.

But a top executive raised the prospect that GM will need more federal loans later in the year if the US auto market doesn't improve, saying that the company presented a worst-case scenario to the government last year that would require $18bn in loans, $4.6bn more than the Bush administration has granted.

The battery factory, to be opened somewhere near Detroit, will employ more than 100 people and be highly automated as it takes cutting-edge lithium-ion cells imported from LG Chem of South Korea and welds them into battery packs for the Volt and other next-generation vehicles from GM.

GM also announced the creation of a 2880m2 battery lab, the largest in the country run by an carmaker, at its Warren technical centre.

It also said it has joined with the University of Michigan to test batteries at the Ann Arbor campus and
train future engineers to design components for electric cars.

No one would say exactly how many jobs would be created, but the news was welcomed by Michigan officials who are trying to bring down the state's 9.6 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the nation.

Tony Posawatz, GM's vehicle line director on the Volt, said he expects the battery factory and lab will bring in companies that supply parts for futuristic electric cars, creating another employment base for the troubled Detroit area.

"We have enough critical mass that future growth will cluster," Posawatz said.

An existing facility that straddles the border between Detroit and the tiny enclave of Hamtramck will assemble the Volt, so southeastern Michigan is the likely front-runner to land the battery factory as well.

Gary Cowger, GM's manufacturing chief, said it's important that the new factory be near the Volt assembly plant because each battery pack is 1.83m long and weighs 182kg.

The Volt is designed to plug into a standard wall outlet and travel 64km on battery power alone. After that, a small internal-combustion engine kicks in to generate power for the car.

The car is set to go on sale late next year at a price expected from $30 000 to $40 000.

Monday's announcement at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit was fresh evidence that GM expects to survive the recession and thrive, even as Chief Operating Officer Fritz Henderson raised the prospect of federal loans beyond the $13.4bn already granted to the company. 


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