Britta K. Gross is a General Motors manager responsible for development of hydrogen and electrical technologies, including the upcoming, groundbreaking Chevrolet Volt. Gross lives in southwest Orange County but commutes often to Detroit. She spoke recently with the Sentinel's Steven Cole Smith.
CFB(Central Fla Business): Having been based in Detroit, I know that living there can skew your day-to-day opinion of the auto industry. Does living in Florida help you maintain a more mainstream perspective?
Being in Florida gives me a much more normal perspective, and a surprisingly positive perspective, as opposed to Detroit, where it does feel a little insular.
I bring a lot of the input I get from talking to people in Florida into my work when I explain things to people in the company as to why we are where we are, and how people are looking differently at our very aggressive line of new vehicles. I think it has helped shape me, and shape the kinds of things I talk about at work.
CFB: You work on a variety of programs, but by far your most anticipated product is the Chevrolet Volt, due next year. How does it differ from hybrids on the market now, such as the Toyota Prius?
The Chevy Volt is a plug-in, extended-range electric vehicle. That makes it different right away from a hybrid that blends a mechanical system with an electrical system. The Volt drives entirely under electrical power.
First, you deplete the battery — it can travel up to 40 miles on the battery alone — before any gasoline is used. And at the point where the battery is depleted, the small gasoline engine kicks in and produces more electricity.
So it's very much an electric vehicle, as opposed to a hybrid of two different systems.
CFB: How important is the Volt to GM?
Extremely important. No
program alone can change a company, but what it does is draw your eyes to a company that is really, really working hard to capture leadership again. It will make people take a fresh look at General Motors and make them realize that this is a great car company, that can do an awful lot of great things.
That kind of symbol, representing a major change in a company, is a really big deal.
CFB: Has the timetable for the Volt changed?
No. We're still on track for a November 2010 launch.
CFB: As disruptive as the GM bankruptcy was to many divisions, from the outside, it appeared to have little effect on the Volt program. Was it indeed that way on the inside?
There were no disruptions. There were no e-mails sent out that said, "answer this" or "explain this" or "defend this" or "do that" — we just kept going.
CFB: Five years ago, we were hearing a great deal about hydrogen fuel cell technology, but it seems to have fallen off the radar. Does GM still have a strong commitment to fuel cell technology?
It's hard to keep multiple technologies in the [news] media at the same time. We have a very aggressive development program for the fuel cell. Nothing has changed about our commitment.
We are very focused on where the country needs to be in 2030, 2050; we are looking way down the road. The only way we can reach a lot of the targets we have set as a society — for, as an example, greenhouse gas emissions — is to have a very broad approach to bringing in alternative fuel programs.
And hydrogen gets you certain performance benefits that you don't get from other alternative fuels. The advantages are too big to discard. We can't just assume batteries are going to solve all our problems.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at 407-420-5699, firstname.lastname@example.org, at 407-420-5699, or through his blog at Enginehead.com.