Just as it was fending off blows to its product reputation for installing faulty ignition switches affecting 2.6 million vehicles, and overcoming recession-induced economic woes, General Motors (GM) made some surprising technology announcements in April 2014. At the start of the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress in Detroit in April, GM told reporters that it is investing $449m in next-generation electric vehicles and advanced battery technology production. That brings the company's total investment in new technology up to $5.4bn since 2009.

Gerald Johnson, GM's North America vice-president of manufacturing, told reporters at an Automotive Press Association meeting during the SAE week: “General Motors is committed to building award-winning products and developing technologies in the US, which helps grow our economy from a resurgent auto industry. These investments will help the next-generation Chevrolet Volt [a hybrid electric vehicle] build on its position as the leader in electrified propulsion.”


GM’s two-year investment includes spending $384m on the Detroit-Hamtramck and Brownstown assembly plants in Michigan, near Detroit. That financial stimulus is the largest to date for Detroit-Hamtramck, where five GM models currently are built. GM’s total $65m investment at Brownstown assembly will support next-generation lithium-ion battery production and future battery systems important to GM’s electrification plans, Mr Johnson told reporters.

Mr Johnson would not say whether these new investments would lead to increased production, jobs or new shifts at the two plants. “We’re not announcing that today,” he said simply, when asked.

More than $2.8bn (of the $5.4bn in new technology investment) has been invested in Michigan-based facilities alone, Mr Johnson said. GM plants in big cities such as Warren, Flint, Saginaw, Bay City (Michigan) and Toledo, Ohio, have also benefitted from GM investments in the past few years, he said.

Michigan's governor Rick Snyder and Detroit's mayor Mike Duggan, also spoke about GM’s investments. Mr Snyder said that challenges remain in the auto industry but that “this announcement shows that [GM] is looking to future and resulting technologies [that] will strengthen our economy and benefit our environment.”

Michigan is home to 61 of the largest global suppliers, located primarily in the south-eastern region close to major US automakers, and about 375 research and development centres, including domestic and import automaker sites. “Michigan is number four in the country for high-paid jobs,” many of which are auto-related, Mr Snyder said. Michigan’s competitive position has “increased dramatically in the past few years,” he added, disputing ideas of a stagnant Michigan economy.

Mr Duggan added that Detroit needs “partners such as GM that are committed to investing in our future.” GM’s corporate headquarters is located in Detroit’s Renaissance Centre.

Mr Johnson discouraged reporters from asking questions about GM’s recall problems. Questions centered on GM’s electrification plans, jobs and facility upgrades in mid-west plants.

Detroit-Hamtramck is the world’s only auto plant that mass produces extended range electric vehicles, including the Volt, Cadillac ELR and Opel Ampera for markets in 33 countries, GM said. The plant also builds the mid-sized Chevrolet Impala and Malibu sedans and is home to a photovoltaic solar array system that can generate up to 516 kilowatts of electricity, considered enough to charge 150 electric vehicles per day. That means the plant is capable of increased electric vehicles production. GM sold 23,094 Volt models last year, compared to close competitor Nissan Leaf, at 22,610.

Meanwhile, the Brownstown plant, south of Detroit, is a landfill-free facility that has produced GM’s lithium-ion batteries for extended-range use since October 2010, when Volt production took off. It is the first US manufacturing site operated by a major automaker for lithium-ion battery production. The facility received significant start-up funds from the US Department of Energy.