New Position Underscores China's Importance to General Motors’s Global Electrification R&D

By · June 16, 2011

Bierzynski

GM China Group recently announced that it has created the position Executive Director for Electrification Strategy. Ray Bierzynski will be GM’s first China electrification czar. The move magnifies the importance of China to GM’s overall growth plans. More importantly, in my opinion, it cements China’s importance as a—if not the—key location for GM’s global electrification R&D efforts.

I have known Ray Bierzynski since around 2004, when he became president of the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC) in Shanghai. PATAC is a 50/50 engineering and design joint venture between GM and SAIC, its Chinese partner. Though Bierzynski says his position is just for China, I think it is in fact a global position. Here’s why.

PATAC started out adapting GM’s global platforms and designs for the China market. As it matured, PATAC began engineering a majority of some platforms for the China market, and working on part of other global GM platforms. Some of PATAC’s innovations for the China market migrated to the global market. That took a few years. I think we will see much more rapid global adoption of electrification innovations from GM China.

GM has already laid the foundation in China for global electrification research. In September, 2009, it established the China Science Lab. The lab, which is 100 percent owned by GM, does research into basic battery materials as well alternative powertrains and urban driver behavior. On the energy storage front, the lab is basically playing with the lithium ion battery recipe to see if it can come up with better (and cheaper) packs.

I interviewed John Du, head of the China Science Lab, in Shanghai last October. In the past, he said, China had followed the U.S. in terms of technology. If a company was doing R&D in China, it was for localization. Now, given the large and fast growing volumes there, “China is a place we believe is potentially leading the adoption of new technology,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the technology is only suitable for China. Said Du: “All of this will drive technology and implementation which will be in China first, but with global deployment eventually.”

To be sure, I am skeptical that China’s EV market will grow anywhere near as quickly as the government’s initial plans have called for. Indeed, according to my sources in China, the government itself is backing off those projections. But even a slower-growing market in China still equals a lot of cars, EV or otherwise.

I asked Du how fast he thought the China market for new energy vehicles (as alternative powertrain cars are known there,) would grow. It “for sure won’t take off overnight,” he said. But it was definitely the direction China’s automotive industry was headed, Du concluded.

And even if the China market for alternative powertrain vehicles does hit some speed bumps, so what? The research GM will do in China will have global applications.

Bierzynski is in charge of “coordinating and accelerating the commercialization of GM’s electrification technologies in China,” according to the GM press release. “Bierzynski will also be engaged in codes and standards coordination, and the development of policies, supplier capability, demonstration programs and alternative business models for the electric vehicle market,” it says.

What’s good for the China EV market will be good for other markets, as well. So don’t be surprised when Bierzynski’s role turns out to be global rather than just local.

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