GM’s Freese Details Focus and Key Technology


Charles Freese, CEO of GM Defense, discusses company’s priorities and the integration of advanced driving technology, during an interview with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the 2018 AUSA Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Our AUSA coverage is brought to you by Bell, a Textron Company, Elbit System of America, L3 Technologies, Leonardo DRS, and Safran.

Charles Freese

CEO, GM Defense

AUSA Annual Meeting

October 2018

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Conference and Trade Show in Washington, DC, the number one gathering of U.S. Army leaders from around the world to talk about the service’s strategy, doctrine, budgets, and future including technology and innovation.  Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell, a Textron company; Elbit Systems of America; L3 Technologies; Leonardo DRS; and SAFRAN.  

And we are here at the General Motors Defense stand, makings its comeback at this great show.  Charlie Freese, the CEO of GM Defense, resuscitating one of the greatest names in American national security.  Charlie, congratulations.

Charles Freese:  Thank you, Vago.

Today what we’re here to talk about really is we’re starting to stand up the new company.  We announced that we’ve got the capability now to take some of the investment that General Motors is making on its own products where we’re investing about $7.3 billion a year in R&D, and now we’re directing that towards solutions that can solve defense-related problems.

Mr. Muradian:  That’s right, because last year I remember when the decision was made that the unit was going to come back, you guys unveiled the service vehicle which was just this ground-breaking fuel cell powered flatbed that can move, generate its own electricity and generate water.  You now have a new chassis.  You’ve also done leader/follower trials with the Colorado vehicle that you guys had adapted with your fuel cell technology, where there’s a Bolt that’s following along with it.

So bring us up to speed on, let’s start with the leader/follower trial.  That’s the big video that you guys unveiled, and you’re using the Bolt as a surrogate vehicle to test some of your self-driving, autonomous-driving capabilities.  Walk us through what you achieved with that program.

Mr. Freese:  We’re doing a lot of work as General Motors for autonomous driving.  We’ve got vehicles that are running in San Francisco every day.  They’re dealing with the real world on-road challenges.  It’s a little different when you get off-road.  When you talk about an Army application where you don’t have roads at all sometimes or they’re very, very rough roads and they’re not necessarily mapped the way a street would be.  You have to deal with it differently.  

So we’re using different ways to leverage the sensors that are on board our autonomous vehicles, and we’re starting this all with a leader/follower.  What the leader/follower does is it allows us to take one vehicle as the leader.  We’ve got LIDAR radar, high resolution radar.  We’ve got high resolution GPS.  All of these different things.  And vehicle to vehicle communications.

What that does is that means that we can lay digital bread crumbs behind the leader vehicle and allow the follower to follow anywhere between 20 and 150 meters, and we can tailor that following distance according to what the road conditions or off-road conditions are.

If you have low friction surfaces, you need to change how closely you follow.  You also need to change the acceleration characteristics of the vehicle.  We can do all of that with the smart equipment that’s on board the vehicle and give you a truly autonomous vehicle as the follower unit, taking the warfighter out of harm’s way.

Mr. Muradian:  It’s amazing, as somebody who loves driving and loves cars, you can see sort of the promise and the benefit of autonomous vehicles, but you realize then the challenges that even the very worst driver can do a better job in a field or something to avoid a pitfall, avoid a ditch or something that maybe even an autonomous system might miss.

How are you guys refining these algorithms, advancing the state of the art on it?  Because you’re absolutely right.  It’s one thing to be hey, I’m on a map surface and I have the right coordinates and I know that I’m on this side of the lane, and now I’m just checking for anything that’s anomalous there as opposed to being like hey look, this is terra incognita, we’re going into this terrain for the very first time.

Mr. Freese:  Well there’s a lot that happens on-road that’s unpredictable.  You don’t know when a dog’s going to run between two parked cars or somebody’s going to swing their door open.  But by using sensors and the smarts that go into the vehicle we found on-road ways to deal with that.

So we have different challenges when we talk about off-road, especially when you talk about terrain that might change very dramatically, but in a battlefield situation you might even have others that are affecting the terrain.  There’s a pothole that was just created by an explosive device or something like that.  So you need to be able to address that all very quickly and you have to have the intelligence in the vehicle to deal with it.

But as a leader/follower, the first step is use the advantages of being able to follow a vehicle where you’ve also got the intelligence of the lead driver that has picked a safe route, and let the follower adapt to that.  And then eventually, you can start to wean yourself off of that and get something that can truly run autonomously.  

But with the sensors, we have the ability to see things that the human eye or the normal senses that a human driver would use, can’t detect.  We can see through fog and smoke using sensors like that.  And that can actually be an advantage that can help eliminate a lot of sources of human error.  Then you also have to recognize that the computer is not going to have the type of human error mistakes that are made in driving.  So all of those can end up being a safer situation for driving.

Mr. Muradian:  What you guys are also trying to do though, is fundamentally also change the propulsion equation away from combustion, internal combustion engines to hydrogen fuel cells.  It’s a technology you guys have worked with for literally decades, I mean 40 years of experience within the company trying to do that.  And your products are actually going into a whole bunch of defense applications as it is right now.  Some [acknowledged, some less so.

Talk to us a little bit about how you’re refining that power plant and how this new chassis and new setup works.  We were joking a little bit earlier.  It’s like wow, it’s like you guys are a car company and sort of laying it out so that we can easily see it.

Mr. Freese:  When we did the Colorado ZH2 which you’ve seen, we were using 2007-level fuel cell technology and we were putting it into a commercial architecture that we had been developing and had parts already on the shelf, and it meant that we were using something we trusted.  We knew we could turn it loose to the military and they could run it for a year and we didn’t have to worry about whether it would hold up. 

But since that time we’ve been able to advance considerably on the production [intent] hardware, and what that’s allowed us to do is to get a much more compact system.  So what wouldn’t have fit under hood with all the cooling and other things now fits easily under hood and it still meets all the propulsion system requirements, and that frees a lot of space in the chassis for other things.

So if you look at this, up in front we’ve got the new propulsion system which is the fuel cell power generation unit, and then we’re able to put a traction motor on each axel independently.  Something we didn’t have on the Colorado.  We had one motor that was going into a transfer case.  So now we can control the torque on each axel independent.  

We also have a battery system that’s much more capable  than what we had on the Colorado, and we were able to put in hydrogen storage tanks that are able to put enough hydrogen on board so this becomes a 400-mile range vehicle.  And it does all of this in an architecture that maintains the off-road capability that the Colorado had, but this new Silverado ZH2 architecture will be much more capable.  It’s got much better ground clearance with 12 inches of ground clearance under the entire vehicle.  And we can still maintain the fast refueling that came out of the Colorado with three-minute refueling, but we added a couple of things that were kind of interesting, like the ability to capture the water.

I think when we talked last year we mentioned that it generates about two gallons of water an hour.  Now we can capture that water, and at the point where it’s most valuable, at the end of the supply chain.  We’re making the water in situ.  So now that becomes another advantage that comes out of the hydrogen which we didn’t really leverage before.  We knew we could do it, but now we’re going to start doing that on this vehicle.

Mr. Muradian:  How much progress, because you’re, it’s not just a vision of autonomy, it’s a vision of completely changing not only the fuel source but also how the Army powers everything, given that 90 percent of what the Army burns, that might not be an accurate suggestion, but a large amount of the fuel is actually to generate power to run systems.  Main battle tanks run their engines or a donkey engine in order to be able to have that sort of overwatch mode or full-up power mode.  Talk to us a little bit about the progress you’re making in bringing this architectural idea.  I know the Army Secretary was just here and you met with him briefly. 

Talk to us about the progress you’re making to get the Army to perhaps — because for you to succeed they have to rethink fundamentally how they operate, right?  Tell us the progress you’re making in sort of getting the advantages of this system in front of the customer.

Mr. Freese:  We just signed up on a contract with TARDEC where we’re going to demonstrate this vehicle as part of a broader ecosystem.  What that’s going to deal with is the fact that we can take the energy that’s either available in theater, or we can take JP8 which they’re already bringing into the theater, and we can convert that to hydrogen.  Hydrogen is just a more efficient way of storing the electrons.  I mean nobody thinks twice about storing electrons in batteries, but we can store more electrons in hydrogen than we can in the batteries.  So think of it as you bring whatever energy source with you that you want.  If JP8 is the source you want to bring, you can bring that, or you can use other things that are in theater, reduce your JP8 consumption.  Either way, we can convert that to hydrogen and use the advantages that come out of hydrogen with greater efficiency, that can travel further.  

As you said, we can do silent watch, we can run an APU or we can export power from the propulsion system to either power the payload, power sensors and equipment like direct energy weapons.  Or you can use this as something to power off-board the vehicle.  This can be a 100-kilowatt power generation source.  So now you can generate the power to move the vehicle and for these other uses.  You don’t need to bring a semi-tractor trailer with you to bring generators, which they made a lot of noise, they have odor, and they have smoke.  So all of those things are disadvantages.  We can avoid that with this because the system is so quiet, and emitting only the water as the exhaust product, that’s a big advantage.

Mr. Muradian:  What is on your agenda over the next year?  The first year we saw the vehicle after you guys had done the trials for it.  Last year you unveiled the new vehicle.  So what are you guys going to be doing over the coming year?

Mr. Freese:  As I mentioned, this vehicle, this is the actual vehicle that will be used in that ecosystem evaluation by TARDEC.  We’re going, next time you see it it will have the top on the vehicle, so it will look more like a truck, but this is the starting point right here.  Everything in here would demonstrate the functional capability of the propulsion system, the way we deal with hydrogen.  

And then we’re coupling that up with the rest of the ecosystem.  So that will be how we manage the fuel or the energy coming into theater.  In this case we’ll look at JP8.  We’ve got the reformer system set up.  Then we’ll look at how we manage the water and the JP8 over the logistics train so that we can look at how much overall energy is being consumed, how we’ve optimized it as an ecosystem, how we can increase the amount of operation that we can get out of the vehicle, the distance that can be traveled, the amount of silent watch time that can be run, and then how we capture the water and can reuse the water.  If you put in a gallon of JP8 and get two and a half gallons of water out the back end of that, that’s a big advantage.  

So that’s one of the things we want to make sure we’ve optimized, and then dealt with that in the kind of situations of a real mission.

Mr. Muradian:  Let me ask you, Army Futures Command, new organization.  There are some folks asking questions about look, what does this do to the Army’s acquisition system?  You’re the CEO of an old/new company that’s in the field.  Obviously your relationships, despite the fact that you guys  got rid of your armored vehicle business, you’ve had an Army acquisition relationship for many decades that continued unabated.

But talk to us, do you fully understand or do you have any questions, I mean is it clear enough how this new ecosystem is going to work that will allow you to interface with the customer, whether to help them shape their ideas or to do sales?  Is it clear enough, the new structure, from your standpoint as the CEO?

Mr. Freese:  You’re talking about the Futures Command?

Mr. Muradian:  The Futures Command and how it interfaces with the Army’s classical acquisition mechanism.

Mr. Freese:  I think what we’re finding is the Futures Command is going to put more focus on some of these innovative areas and non-traditional ways to try to address challenges that the military has.  And that’s really very well aligned with what General Motors Defense is trying to do.  We want to go in, GM Defense is focused on trying to take the things that we’re already developing for commercial applications and leverage that investment so that we can more quickly and more cost effectively take that to solve a problem that the military faces, and do it with that last mile of adaptation where we can tune it specifically to their needs, but they don’t need to back up and start at ground zero with the creation of all the research and development that it took to get to that point.  

If we’re investing about $7.3 billion a year in research and development, that’s a great starting point, and then we can keep a very lean, agile operation that can focus those resources strictly on the things that ultimately will pay off for the military applications.

Mr. Muradian:  Do you think, are you sometimes surprised when you tell people how much money General Motors spends on R&D and how formidable your engineering capabilities are?  I mean I think that some people are surprised by that.  Do you find that people are surprised when you tell them that?

Mr. Freese:  I think a lot of people don’t quite realize how capable General Motors is in terms of the resources and the technology that we have to bring to bear.  Everybody knows we’re a leading auto company, but sometimes people just view it as the product.  They don’t necessarily look behind that to see what’s behind it.  All the work that’s being done on electrification, autonomy, the fuel cell technology, the work that we’re doing on just developing the building blocks that go behind that.

Mr. Muradian:  Cyber, for example, where you are very strong?

Mr. Freese:  Yeah, being cyber connected vehicles with OnStar.  And the things that are going in there, those are things that maybe not all people recognize, and when you start looking at it all in one place, it’s pretty impressive what that can actually do to solve some of these challenges that we see in the defense area.

Mr. Muradian:  And then you guys also have been filling out the management team, right?  Because now your President is retired U.S. Army Major General John Charlton.

Mr. Freese:  That’s right.  One of the key things was to bring John in because we’re trying to get some real key people in so we can start to build out the staff and keep focused on what the customer needs really are.  And so ultimately John is the start and we’ll add to it from there.

Mr. Muradian:  Let me ask you one other question.  Last week, Charlie, the White House released and the President signed off on a Defense Industrial Study, a National Industrial Study actually is what it is more broadly, and sort of the defense industrial piece of it saying that the United States government will have to come to the aid of some small suppliers that are key for American national security. 

From the standpoint of a CEO of an American automobile and a technology company, what do you think the impact of that study’s going to be in how you guys, you know, whether you’re going to do supply or management or just your overall approach to sort of technology development?

Mr. Freese:  Well, we have the advantage of General Motors has a very well-developed supplier management capability just with how we do global management of the supply chain.  That’s a really important ingredient to this.  And as a global competitor in the automotive space, we buy from a lot of different places.  But what’s very interesting is just how much domestic capability that we have to build these vehicles, the things that are very interesting for this defense community.  We have the ability to do a lot of that right here in the United States with local production.  In some of the cases of like, for instance, the batteries and the fuel cells, those are going to be made in Brownstown and in the Michigan area.  So having the ability to do that gives us tight control of some of those things.  Those are things that a lot of companies can’t do, but we have that installed capacity in those areas, and that’s a big advantage.

Mr. Muradian:  Charlie Freese, CEO of GM Defense.  Great talking to you again, and look forward to talking to you again soon, because you guys are on the move, and I look forward to visiting you up in sunny Michigan.

Mr. Freese:  Thanks, Vago.


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