Independent-minded tinkerer takes on GM's vital Volt
The future of General Motors (GM), at least the most electrifying part
of it, rests 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. Not a hybrid, Volt's small
on-board engine is only for charging the battery when away from a plug
and at no time provides power directly to the wheels.
Developing the Volt and its E-Flex powertrain on a tight time frame aims
to recast GM as the most advanced and environmental automaker — and able
to do what even Toyota can't.
"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 by e-mail.
It's uncharted territory for Weber's more than 200 engineers and 45
designers, demanding breakthroughs in battery technology and other
areas, plus meeting high expectations for style and value.
Running it is a 41-year-old independent thinker and tinkerer who seeks
to live in harmony with nature.
"I like to create things," Weber (pronounced VAY-buh) 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 formal training
and taught himself jazz piano. He composed his first piece at age 10.
His do-it-yourself mindset continued after he enrolled in mechanical
engineering at the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany. He bought
his first car. It was just a couple of 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
attention — and is a car he still owns.
But GM chose Weber for the Volt project for more than his inner grease
monkey and creative nature.
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 developed the global midsize vehicle line due to go on
sale later this year, starting with the Opel Insignia, which replaces
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,
and 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 to deliver the Volt, less time than
it would normally allot to develop even a less-complicated concept vehicle.
The hope for the project is to steal the mantle of green leadership from
Toyota Motor, revered in many consumers' minds for its Prius hybrid.
Two months after unveiling the Volt at the 2007 Detroit auto show, GM
handed that charge to Weber.
With the right batteries, GM says, the Volt could travel 40 miles — the
average American's daily commute — without a drop of gas.
The key question is whether suppliers can provide a lithium-ion battery
durable and safe enough for automotive use within the Volt's timetable,
something several automakers have publicly questioned. Such a battery —
more powerful, compact and efficient than the nickel-metal hydride
batteries in today's gas-electric hybrids — is an essential component
for the Volt to meet its goals.
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. They also are developments that will require
Weber to establish a new supply base for many of the 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.
But the payoff could be huge, Hall added: "E-Flex could be a powertrain
breakthrough that's as significant as the hybrid."