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GM's Technological Orphans - Gone Forever, or Poised for a Comeback?

by Edward Sanchez | Apr 02, 2019

In the last few years, General Motors has released several technologies on a small number of models that held great promise, only to discontinue those models or features after a short period. Among them are DSRC in the CTS, and an uncertain future for Super Cruise and the available Blackwing twin-turbocharged V-8 in the CT6-V. For better or for worse, GM’s history of doing limited technological trial balloons on production vehicles is nothing new for the company, and dates back decades.

Cadillac Super Cruise

Although the rationale for doing limited-production trials of new technologies is defensible from the standpoint of gaining real-world testing data and field validation, one has to wonder if fully developing and validating the technologies for production vehicles is worth the additional cost over continuing to develop them at the prototype stage.

GM’s History of Production Trials

One of the most noteworthy examples is fuel injection on the Chevrolet small-block V-8, starting with the 1957 Bel Air models, and continuing with the Corvette through 1965. From that point forward, fuel injection on GM’s gasoline engines was practically unheard-of until the early 1980s, when some applications of a rather basic throttle-body injection system appeared on some models. Not until the late 1980s and early ‘90s did port fuel injection become commonplace on GM models again.

Although Daimler generally gets credit for having the first airbags in production, GM actually had production vehicles with airbags dating back to 1973. The key distinction that Daimler made with its system is that it was dubbed a Supplemental Restraint System, unlike the early GM system, which was called the Air Cushion Restrain System, which was marketed as a convenience feature, and an ostensible replacement for seatbelts. Vehicles equipped with GM's ACRS system were equipped only with lap belts, as opposed to the then-customary shoulder belts for front outboard occupants, a feature that was mandated by NHTSA starting in 1974. After a few fatalities attributed to the ACRS system and lack of a shoulder belt, GM discontinued the limited option, and subsequently actively lobbied against an imminent airbag mandate. NHTSA passed a rule in 1991 requiring installation of supplemental airbag restrain systems staring in 1997.

Subscribers to Strategy Analytics’ Powertrain, Body, Chassis and Safety (PBCS) service can access the sensor forecast database here.

GM's Contemporary Technological Orphans

The most recent technological victims to fall prey to GM's restructuring are Cadillac's acclaimed Super Cruise system, which has been praised by many industry figures as one of the best production implementations of Level 2+ driving systems. Only a few brief years after its introduction, the only model that features Super Cruise as an option, the Cadillac CT6, faces a hazy outlook after the announcement that the Detroit Hamtramck plant was scheduled for closure, in the same sweeping measure that saw the discontinuation of another one of GM's promising technologies, the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt. Although GM claims the CT6 isn't officially dead, it has not yet announced another North American plant for its production, leaving only Jinqiao, China as the only other current global source for the car. The CT6-V is also the only officially announced model to receive Cadillac's exclusive 4.2L "Blackwing" twin-turbocharged V-8 engine.

Cadillac Blackwing 4.2L Twin-Turbo V-8

Although the future of the CT6 at the moment is dubious at best, it would be a crying shame if Super Cruise and the Blackwing engine were both to die a premature death. A prime candidate to receive both technologies would be the Escalade full-size SUV. The near six-figure price of Cadillac's unofficial flagship would be able to absorb both features, and still deliver healthy margins for the General. 

There will likely be far fewer tears shed for DSRC, a standard staunchly advocated by GM and Toyota, but few others, as cellular V2X (C-V2X) appears increasingly as the preferred V2V communication standard going forward. You can read more about recent developments in V2X from CES 2019 here.

GM, like many other automakers, is claiming an “electrified future.” In October 2017, it made the bold pronouncement that it would have 20 full BEV models by 2023. At the moment, GM’s only production full battery-electric remains the Chevrolet Bolt B-segment compact. In no way to disparage GM’s efforts or intentions, but Hyundai/Kia have three long-range BEVs on the market, and likely many more on the way.

The discontinuation of the Volt plug-in hybrid seems especially ironic considering the estimated $1.2 billion development budget for the first-generation model, and the tragically short 3-year model run of the second-generation model that debuted for 2016. For the time being, the Volt’s PHEV technology will live on in the China-market Buick Velite, essentially a Buick-badged Volt in the vein of the Opel Ampera. GM is also offering a China-specific Velite 6 in a wagon form-factor that seems like it could be fairly easily repackaged into a crossover. 

2019 Chevrolet Volt
In the interim period before a comprehensive national network of Level 2 and 3 EV charging stations, a plug-in hybrid makes a great deal of sense for the American market and the vast distances many people travel, offering all-electric short-range operation, with the carefree flexibility of an internal combustion powertrain for longer distances. Even more ironic in the context of the discontinuation of the Volt were the multiple PHEV announcements at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show by European automakers.

The government of China has made a much more concerted national effort to promote electrification, so from a pragmatic standpoint, it makes sense for GM to transfer its PHEV technology to that market in the near-term. The enduring success of Tesla shows that despite the company’s production hiccups, and the headline-fodder histrionics of its CEO Elon Musk, the world is ready for long-range, attractive EVs, with the company’s already impressive market share growth sure to increase with the introduction of the Model Y crossover.

Perhaps we’re witnessing GM’s public quiescence while working feverishly behind the scenes on its 20 EV models. We may see a proverbial mic-drop from Mary Barra at the 2020 Detroit show, or just as likely, a global EV debut in Shanghai.

Is GM’s continuing tradition of technological orphans yet another example of the ghost of “old GM” still haunting the RenCen, or a sign of fearless boldness in experimentation? Perhaps a bit of both. To quote hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take."

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