Ken Morris GM VP PT interview
Ken Morris (above), who oversees powertrain engineering as part of his VP of global product integrity position at General Motors, says that providing a menu of propulsion options will be key to winning over the broadest subset of consumers. (SAE)

Extending the ICE Age: GM’s Ken Morris lives the real pace of the powertrain revolution

We sit down with GM’s VP of global product integrity, whose purview includes the rapidly shifting landscape of powertrain engineering.

As part of the cover story on the future of vehicle propulsion in the July/August 2019 edition of Automotive Engineering magazine, this article is one of four that examines the near-term future of vehicle propulsion from the perspective of OEM powertrain-engineering senior executives.

As the vice president of global product integrity at General Motors, Ken Morris oversees powertrain engineering, and has a first-hand view of the often ballyhooed trend of electrified propulsion. You might be surprised to learn that GM is, in fact, still very much in the engine business. “The way things are being covered right now, you would think we had just stopped everything, and everything is electric, and that certainly is not the way things are going to develop,” Morris said.

“I would say GM's in transition, and the speed of that transition in terms of volumes is probably, you know, less huge than you would expect. IHS data says 90% still ICE 10 years from now,” Morris noted, referencing the respected industry analyst.

“But you never know what's going to happen when really good electric vehicles come out in volume, and the infrastructure starts coming around,” Morris said. “In the end you want to provide what the customers want: fuel economy, performance, quality, reliability. We're developing ICEs to match those, developing hybrids, developing electric vehicles. The key is to provide a kind of a menu. Some people are going to be early adopters and some people are going to be diesel diehards because that's a tool they need.”

End of the ICE age?
This does not mean that GM is doubtful of an electrified future, and it is investing accordingly. “We’re doubling the number of resources that we have on BEVs, but we still have a tremendous amount of work to do on ICEs,” Morris explained. “We've got two brand-new engines in development right now. There's always going to be a need for really high-performance, high-efficiency engines. Doing that with new engines, or continuing to polish the stone on existing engines, we'll be in that business probably decades for sure.”

“Do I believe mechanical engineers can transfer those skill sets to help us on BEV propulsion systems?” Morris noted to the query. “I do. And that's the thing: It's not just good people, they're brilliant. They're experienced and they've been around the block multiple times. You definitely want to bring them along.”

Global player
“The auto industry is the most complex industry in the world,” Morris explained. “The key to being a global automaker is you have to be prepared for whatever region you're trying to sell your vehicles in. The regulatory environment alone drives much more than fuel prices. What you need to do to meet the regulations in terms of what your mixes are, and how many you sell of each type of powertrain.”

“China for example, very, very low adoption of diesel,” Morris added. “And China is driving a lot of what's happening in the rest of the world. It used to be Europe and the United States as kind of the centroid of automotive technology. But China, especially along the lines of BEVs and hybrids and that technology, is driving that. I've looked at the numbers and the penetration rate of diesels has gone way down in Europe, and so does that bounce back?”

Combining suppliers with in-house expertise
“The saying is we'll either find a way or make a way. We're going to take the best solution that we can get for the vehicle, and if there isn't a good solution, we're gonna make one.” Morris said when asked about the evolving relationship between OEMs and suppliers. “The key – and this is something that General Motors can never let out – is the soul of the vehicle and how you integrate all those things, and how does the vehicle function and how does it perform?”

“That's what's going to be the separator of vehicles in the AV world,” Morris continued. “Who's providing the best experience for the customer? I think our ability to integrate ride/handling, noise/vibration, steering/brakes has really come along as a company, and I think that's one of our strengths. It's a system exercise. The separation between what suppliers give us versus what we invent, that's going to be a case-by case basis. But how we dial that car in, that's us.”

Today’s challenges
What does Morris see as the most pressing concerns facing him daily? “The motor that's going to fund all of the BEV and AV stuff are the IC engines and how profitable we are on our standards. My goal every day – number one – is to make those the best vehicles they can be, because people can buy anything they want. Then we have to make them as fuel-efficient as we can for selling points to customers, but also the regulatory environment. Lastly, we need to make as much money as we possibly can on these vehicles, because we want to fund the future.”

Morris is obviously in a thoughtful position to comment on future tech, but he appears rationally anchored in the present. “It's easy to get enamored with a new technology and forget what a massive industry we have making 17-, 18-million vehicles a year,” he explained. “There's a lot of equipment behind that, a lot of technology, a lot of people working on it. It's like an enormous ship. We're moving, and the technology is changing, but there's still a huge amount of momentum for the traditional vehicles.”

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