In charge of Chevy Volt
The future of General Motors Corp. -- the most electrifying part of it,
at least -- rests squarely on the slim shoulders of Frank Weber.
He is responsible for the day-to-day tasks of bringing the Chevrolet
Volt plug-in electric car to market by 2010.
Developing the Volt and its E-Flex powertrain entails technical
challenges on a tight time frame in hopes of recasting GM as the world's
most advanced and environmental automaker -- one that can do what even
Toyota can't. Shepherding the effort to develop what GM calls a
"range-extended electric vehicle" is Weber (pronounced VAY-buh), an
independent thinker and tinkerer who seeks to live in harmony with nature.
If the Volt were its own start-up, Weber would be the CEO -- and the
chief technical officer.
"The work he and his team are doing is vital for the future. ... This is
the tip of the spear heralding the paradigm shift away from 'Let's spend
billions to use a bit less oil' to 'Let's spend hundreds of millions to
use no oil at all,' " GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said of Weber by e-mail.
It's uncharted territory for his team of more than 200 engineers and 45
designers, demanding breakthroughs in battery technology as well as
important advances in dozens of other areas and high expectations for
style and value.
"I like to create things," Weber said. "I don't like too much that
somebody comes and gives the answer."
The Wiesbaden, Germany, native is so independent-minded that as a child,
after three years of classical piano lessons, he stopped traditional
study and taught himself jazz piano. He composed his first piece around
the age of 10.
Now he is composing a piece called "40 Miles," after the distance a
fully charged Volt is expected to go on electricity alone.
His do-it-yourself mindset continued after he enrolled in the mechanical
engineering program at the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany.
After choosing his field of study -- a more "rational choice" than music
-- Weber bought his first car. It was just a couple years old and never
had a problem. Weber hated it.
He started replacing parts that still worked, just to tinker. So he
traded it for a 1966 Beetle convertible that required constant work and
attention -- and he still owns it. It's from "my birth year," he said,
"in the original turquoise color."
But Weber was chosen for more than his inner grease monkey and creative
He is credited with skillful leadership as director of advanced concept
engineering in GM's European Technical Centers. Before that he worked on
the team that planned the global midsize vehicle line that will begin to
reach customers later this year, starting with the Opel Insignia, which
replaces the Vectra.
His holistic approach to life and work is a good fit with the Volt
project, said his wife, Heidi. They consciously work at living a
healthy, balanced life: Drinking fresh orange juice, rather than coffee,
favoring organic spaghetti sauce.
"This project is not about maintaining the way things are," she said in
an e-mail, "but about perhaps making the world a little better."
GM has set a November 2010 deadline for delivering the Volt, less time
than it would normally allot to develop a less-complicated concept vehicle.
The hope is to steal away the mantle of green leader from Toyota Motor
Corp., which is revered by many consumers for its Prius hybrid.
Two months after unveiling the Volt at the 2007 Detroit auto show, GM
handed that charge to Weber.
GM says, with the right batteries, the Volt could travel 40 miles -- the
average American's daily commute -- without a drop of gas.
For those who drive farther, the Volt concept uses a three-cylinder
gasoline engine to recharge the battery, so the vehicle could drive 640
miles on a 12-gallon tank without having to stop to refuel or recharge,
generating more than 50 miles per gallon.
And if the Volt concept can be brought to reality, GM could broaden it
into systems that use diesel, hydrogen or other power sources, as it has
shown in concept cars such as the Opel Flextreme.
The key question mark in the program is whether suppliers can provide a
lithium-ion battery that is durable and safe enough for automotive use
in the prescribed time -- which several automakers have publicly questioned.
But it is not the only challenge before Weber's team.
For example, Lutz has said the car needs a decent stereo system and air
conditioner that won't drain too much energy.
Those are developments that typically take far more time than GM and its
suppliers have this time around. They are also developments that require
Weber to establish a new supply base for many components.
"It's a program where the key technology is beyond GM's control and the
deadline they're talking about is really tough to make," said Jim Hall,
managing director of 2953 Analytics, a forecasting and consulting firm
based in Birmingham.
But the payoff could be huge, he added: "E-Flex could be a powertrain
breakthrough that's as significant as the hybrid."
Because of the unique challenges of developing this vehicle, GM deviated
from its usual management approach, essentially saddling Weber with two
He is not only the Volt vehicle-line executive -- GM's title for the
person responsible for the vehicle's business success -- he is also its
Weber said this decision is not about him -- it simply reflects the
problems being solved.
"Many of the things we are currently doing are very fundamental
technical decisions that will guide this architecture for years and
almost decades," Weber said.
It was Weber's experience as both an engineer and program manager as
well as his unique approach, incorporating the heart of a car guy, the
brain of a skilled engineer and the soul of an artist that colleagues
and GM's top executives say made Weber the ideal choice to lead the
Weber reports to Jon Lauckner, GM vice president of global program
management, who is in charge of GM's vehicle-line executives, and to
Group Vice President of Global Engineering Jim Queen, in charge of
vehicle chief engineers.
Lutz has said mule vehicles -- in this case, older Malibus driven by the
new E-Flex propulsion system -- are to begin road testing by mid-year.
"This program is really accelerated," said Bob Boniface, the director of
global design for the exterior and interior of the Volt, who estimates
cutting 30% off the typical development time. "There's no time to drift.
We go to meetings and make decisions on the spot."
As a VLE on an accelerated schedule, it would be easy for Weber to make
decisions purely on a financial basis or to favor technology over style.
But he doesn't do that, Boniface said.
"I've witnessed him make decisions that a lot of times make a car a
better car, even if it costs more," Boniface said. "He'll come in and
say, 'This is an iconic vehicle. It can't just be a regular old car with
a lithium battery in it. It has to say something about the car and the
person who is going to drive it.' "