GM Serious About Ethanol And Flex-Fuel Vehicles?

Could wounded giant General Motors be getting serious about vehicles with flex-fuel engines that can burn high ratios of ethanol? That's what we are going to find out in this series about GM's emerging flex fuel initiative. Today, GM launched a new initiative with the State of California, Chevron and an alternative fuel company called Pacific Ethanol to help grow the flex fuel infrastructure in the State. Does this mean that the automaker has finally realized that its past tactics are simply not working and that they need - for the sake of the environment and their shareholders - a new approach? Well, according to an environmental consultant that has recently begun working with GM and prefers not to be named here, the scoop is that the General has indeed decided that the best place to try to make a breakthrough is with flex-fuel vehicles. In 2006, they will introduce new models that are able to burn an 85% ethanol mix (up to this point, only big pickups and SUVs could do it, but in 2006 two cars will too - more on that below) and may significantly increase the total number of flex fuel vehicles that they produce (GM has 1.4 million of the nearly 5 million flex fuel vehicles on the road in the US). We can only hope that they seriously market the capability so that owners of flex-fuel vehicles finally know what to do with them. On the infrastructure side, we also hope they will consider broadening their efforts and partnering up with big production and distribution companies to make E85 fuel easier to find. What may be a first step in that direction is the joint demonstration project in California described below…From the GM press release:

General Motors will help lead a joint demonstration project along with the state of California, Chevron Technology Ventures, and Pacific Ethanol to learn more about consumer awareness and acceptance of E85 as a motor vehicle fuel by demonstrating its use in GM’s flexible-fuel vehicles. The announcement was made as a result of a non-binding understanding made public today at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

GM intends to offer between 50 to 100 of its E85-capable Chevrolet Impala passenger cars and Silverado pickup trucks for consideration in the state’s annual competitive bid process. Flexible-fuel vehicles will be used by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) at various operations in Northern California and the state’s Central Valley. Chevron Technology Ventures intends to work with CalTrans to provide E85 fuel and install the necessary refueling pumps in these locations. Pacific Ethanol, a California-based ethanol production and marketing company, intends to provide the ethanol to Chevron Technology Ventures for the project.

GM’s environmental consultant has assured us that GM is aware of the problems facing corn ethanol production and that, while the fuel may initially be made from corn, that cellulosic ethanol is a potential choice for the future. Apparently, GM does have a relationship with Iogen, a leading Canadian cellulosic technology manufacturer (see this press release). We'll have to wait and see where that goes, but the quicker the public stops to think that ethanol equals corn, the better.

From the same press release as above:

For the 2006 model year, GM offers nine E85 flexible fuel vehicles, including the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Suburban, GMC Yukon XL, Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Chevrolet Avalanche, Chevrolet Impala, and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. In Europe, the GM-owned Saab brand is making significant headway with the E85-fueled Saab 9-5 BioPower, which is now available to consumers in Sweden and Germany.

These are the two additions to GM's flex-fuel lineup. There are a few other things that GM is planning to do, but for the moment we've been asked not make that information public (we suddenly feel like insiders).

In parallel to this, GM is also debuting some of its largest SUVs ever...

::GM Joins State of California, Chevron Technology Ventures LLC, and Pacific Ethanol to Help Investigate Ethanol as Alternative, Renewable Fuel, ::GM Alt Fuel website, ::Flex-Fuel Cars and the Future of Ethanol