A former chairman of General Motors Corporation provided a look into the future for the auto industry in a speech before the Washington Automotive Press Association Tuesday. Robert Stempel is now chairman of Energy Conversion Devices, a company doing research on electric batteries for numerous applications.
Mr. Stempel was the first engineer ever to head the world's largest automaker and is now the head of a company developing leading-edge technology in electric batteries.
The battery is playing an increasingly important role in automobiles, given the rise of gasoline-electric hybrids, the arrival of the 42-volt electrical system and the eventual coming of the hydrogen fuel cell.
The electric advantage, says Mr. Stemple, began early. "The electric self-starter, introduced on the 1912 Cadillac, was on 98 percent of the cars [by] back in 1917-18," he said. "The very dangerous hand-cranking was gone, vehicles were much safer to start and more people could enjoy automobiles."
GM's former chairman says the march of progress continues, with the gasoline-electric hybrid, led by Toyota and Honda. "GM and Ford have announced big hybrid plans," he said. "Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are working on hybrids, but coupled with a diesel. So, electric drive is going to be a big part of our future."
Mr. Stemple says the advance of hybrid vehicles is a "win-win-win" situation.
"The first for the consumer: no loss of convenience or performance, with big gains in fuel economy, smoothness and quiet operation," he said. "Second, for society as a whole: a significant reduction in auto-related emissions, especially in stop-and-go traffic and urban areas. And third, for the auto industry: continued growth in automotive volume."
Mr. Stemple's current company, Energy Conversion Devices, is heavily involved in the development of nickel metal hydride batteries, already familiar to many.
"It's found in numerous consumer applications around the world, such as cellphones, digital cameras, lap tops. Many of those already use nickel metal hydride batteries," he said.
And now, says the industry veteran, automakers are finding his product attractive. "The reason automakers have selected that is that it lasts the lifetime of the vehicle and performs over hundreds of thousands of cycles," he said.
He points out the nickel hydride battery is designed as a safe storage device for hydrogen, the pollution-free fuel of the future. As Robert Stemple sees it, the current developments are merely a prelude to the future.
"You see the importance of introducing hybrid electric drive now. We're getting the vehicle set up to operate either on hydrogen as a piston engine or the next step, which is the fuel cell," he said.
General Motors' former chairman acknowledges the hydrogen fuel cell is some years down the road, but he says, "get ready, it's coming."