Interview with Tony Posawatz on Electric Vehicles & Innovation (Part 1)

Tony Posawatz is a veteran of the electric vehicle industry, spearheading the development of the Chevy Volt at GM before becoming CEO of Fisker Automotive. In this interview, he shares thoughts on the past and future of electric vehicles. This is part 1 of a 2 part interview. First, to give our readers some context, can you tell us a little about how you came into the electric vehicle space, beginning at GM, and what you’ve been involved with and experienced in since? I’ve been working with advanced technology, and electrified vehicles in particular for over ten years now. I’m a Michigan native, and as they say in the business I have “gasoline in the veins,” and grew up as a consummate “car guy” in Detroit. After my initial experiences in the car business, I started specializing in creating new products and innovations. My 30 year career at General Motors focused on managing billion dollar new-product programs, and I have been very involved in developing some of the more innovative technologies and commercializing them by bringing great products to market. When vehicle electrification seemed to be ready for prime time, I was tasked by GM’s Vice Chairman at the time to head electrification and ultimately lead the product development efforts for the Chevy Volt. Upon retiring from GM, I went into the start-up world to help assist various companies in the same space. Directly after leaving GM, I was CEO of Fisker Automotive for a year and helped them achieve a transaction where the company was sold, and now I work with a number of high tech companies in the auto/cleantech industry to further develop battery technology, fast wireless charging technology, and smart grid V2G technology. I think it’s well known that you were one of the earliest and most involved individuals when it came to the development of the Volt. I was wondering if you could give us a history lesson. GM had previously dabbled with the development of the EV1 in the early 1990s in California, which didn’t fully take off because the technology wasn’t really ready. How did those lessons influence the Volt’s  development? The process of making new technology work in any company and in our industry is one of trial and error and iterative learning. That was the case with GM. GM has historically been viewed as an innovative company with great technology, and they were first movers on modern electric vehicles with the EV1. Unfortunately, like many first offerings, it’s all about lessons learned. The EV 1 was really a crucial stepping stone. We came away from the EV1 deployment with a lot of great insight, not the least of which was the limitations of battery technology at the time. I coined the term “range anxiety” which emerged around 2007 based on conversations I had with just about every single EV1 customer. They loved the cars, and found them to be technological tour de forces, but they all found themselves planning their lives around the car’s capabilities. With the lack of infrastructure at the time, combined with the limitations of the early battery technology, it was difficult to make the EV1 cost effective enough to be commercially viable for the company. So GM ended the leasing program and took back the cars, which was extremely controversial because the customers loved them so much. The other important development was the way that batteries have changed. The EV1 had a lead acid battery. That gave way to the nickel metal hydride battery frequently used in non-plug-in hybrids, and now we have the multitude of families of lithium ion batteries. The advent of the lithium ion battery and the foreseen cost and capacity improvements was one of the reasons we were comfortable creating the Volt. How long had GM been kicking around the concept of something that was powered by lithium ion batteries and gasoline? Were they originally thinking all-electric, or was there something specific beyond the lessons from the EV1 that drove them to the plug-in hybrid concept? That’s a great question and one that hasn’t really been discussed extensively. There were a lot of factors that went into that decision. At the time, we were monitoring the vehicle technologies, looking at the price of fuel, understanding the predominance of gasoline as an energy source for our products, and we were watching the development of the Prius. We decided that we could make a better vehicle, displace more petroleum, and establish ourselves as technology leaders. We could have done an all-electric battery powered vehicle, but we didn’t. A lot of that comes back to the combination of wanting to solve the range anxiety issue while also creating a product for Chevrolet. We chose Chevrolet because it’s GM’s high-volume brand, and creates a signal to people that this is a car that is affordable for the typical American family. Thus, we could have solved the range anxiety issue with a super-large battery, but that would have made it very expensive, so we decided to solve it with the gasoline backup power source. The beautiful thing about what came to be the Volt’s architecture was that you could increase or reduce the battery size in the future, take the engine generator set out, and replace it with other types of power sources, or even hydrogen fuel cells, all while keeping that liquid fuel storage system in the back. So it really created a lot of options for the company in the long-term, even though there are zero compromises for customers from day one. I think to this day it’s still the best selling plug-in car in the United States. Despite that lack of compromises, it seems the public still has a rather poor understanding of electric vehicles. How can the industry do a better job of educating the public? And specifically, before the car was released, did you anticipate the political backlash that occurred? As you know, any time there’s a significant or fundamental change that effects the status quo, regardless of the political landscape, there will be doubt, reservation, or out and out rejection because people fundamentally don’t want to change. We kind of knew that there would be political backlash with the Volt, since it was in the context of the largest restructuring in the company’s history, and that itself was highly politically charged. The Volt really became a political football. Adding to that, GM was proud of what we were doing and we were proud to release the product, so that almost made it a bigger target due to our transparency and openness. So I think we expected some of the backlash, but because we were so confident in the vehicle, we knew that when people experienced the car they would understand what a wonderful choice this innovation was providing them. You can choose to plug in anywhere on the grid, or you can choose to go to one of nearly 150,000 gas stations in the United States. That’s a powerful choice, and it’s one people never had before. So while some of the backlash was because of the Volt changing the status quo, and some of it was because of what GM was going through at the time, it’s worth noting that we began developing the car before the political climate became so polarized in 2007-2008. Before that shift, I spoke to as many conservatives as liberals, and they understood what we were trying to do with the car and what it meant for energy. I think that right now, we’re seeing that positive attitude from both sides come back around, and much support from conservatives due to the energy security ramifications. I’m sure you saw that Bill O’Reilly publicly praised Tesla as “how to get away from OPEC and Putin” a few weeks ago. Do you feel like him embracing EVs is representative of that shift? I do. When I was at Fisker, for example, it was in the post-Solyndra landscape. Now that we’ve kind of moved past that crisis, I think we are seeing people start to embrace these vehicles for what they are rather than what pundits say about them. And that’s the really great thing. Once you remove the political bickering, what it comes down to is that these are legitimately great cars. If they didn’t work, that would be one thing. But the vehicles are great, they have won numerous awards, customers almost universally love them, they are technologically advanced, and they are making tremendous inroads in displacing oil. The Volt fleet alone has surpassed half a billion electric miles, so the amount of oil displaced is phenomenal. Some people comment that electric vehicles haven’t met expectations. The adoption rates are slow and steady with continued growth, but that’s just one part of the puzzle. On every other aspect of expectations, I think EVs have largely exceeded them. Not to mention the fact that an automotive purchase is a very large one, and turnover rates are fairly low. Additionally, in the period since the Volt was introduced, the country has been going through an extremely challenging economic time. So the adoption rates are stable in that context, and are nearly double the adoption rates of conventional hybrid cars their first few years on the market. It took 50 years for half of the households in the United States to get electricity. Just because early adoption was slow, does that mean it was a bad idea? Of course not. So I think we’ll continue to see slow and steady improvements in the retail market, punctuated by breakthroughs in the commercial and industrial space as big companies choose electric vehicles to insulate themselves from fuel prices, and I’m very encouraged by the innovation that continues to occur. Another thing people don’t really think about is that we don’t know what current technologies will lead to in the future. Nobody knew iPods would become less relevant and so quickly be substituted, and that’s not because they were bad products, but because that technology and interface became integrated into our phones and other ways we listen to music now. So we really have no idea what current electric and automotive technology will lead to since breakthroughs tend to surprise us. The Volt was the first car to use telematics, or software that connects your car and your phone, and who knows where that will be in 10-20 years. But the companies and the industry all benefit from the natural innovation that occurs when companies push themselves to solve big problems. (Read Part 2)