The Defense Innovation Unit explores batteries for electric tactical vehicles

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They say an Army moves on its stomach. And, perhaps its vehicles on fossil fuel. But it would appear those vehicles are getting less dependent on gasoline and diesel, and more dependent on batteries. General Motors is developing battery pack prototypes for the Defense Innovation Unit, as a matter of fact. To go further down the road...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

They say an Army moves on its stomach. And, perhaps its vehicles on fossil fuel. But it would appear those vehicles are getting less dependent on gasoline and diesel, and more dependent on batteries. General Motors is developing battery pack prototypes for the Defense Innovation Unit, as a matter of fact. To go further down the road on this topic, Federal Drive host Tom Temin talked with JD Johnson, VP of Business Development for GM Defense and retired Army three-star general.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
Let’s start with GM Fefense. I have to confess I didn’t know there was a GM Defense. I mean, Ford and Chrysler used to do this decades ago. But tell us a little bit about the unit itself.

JD Johnson
Sure. GM has been in the defense business since World War I, hundreds of thousands of trucks, but you might be surprised to know tanks, airplanes ammunition. About eight years ago, 10 years ago, GM got out of the defense business. We got a new CEO, new leadership. And the question was, why aren’t we in this business? We’ve got a lot to offer to the military and to the nation’s defense. And the technology we’re developing could give our troops advantages. So we’re back in the defense business, and excited to bring those technologies to our soldiers, airmen, Marines.

Tom Temin
And let’s talk about electric vehicles working with DIU. That means this is not a mainstream technology yet, or mainstream platform for any of the armed forces or the Army. But what is going on? What are they looking at in terms of where to try to electrify.

JD Johnson
So the Defense Innovation Unit has been primarily focused on bringing commercial technology into the military. And GM has invested very heavily in battery electric technology for our vehicles. The very first vehicle that was introduced was the GMC Hummer electric vehicle, so called super truck, and it’s been out there for customers to buy now for some time. We’ve got other models coming off the line now. But you can imagine the problem you would have if every one of those models had its own battery, own size, battery own way of charging. That used to be the problem in the military, I can remember, in my time growing up, I had all kinds of great equipment, but very often they had their own batteries. And so the supply problems associated with that are significant. So the Defense Innovation Unit has said so we should standardize this for our vehicles. They put out a solicitation, we responded to it, and we’re able to be awarded with that. And so we’re helping the military standardize what vehicle batteries ought to look like and how they ought to perform.

Tom Temin
Now at the recent AUSA show, there was a hybrid electric tank being shown again, I think that’s an experimental type of thing. Are we talking about tactical vehicles transports or what types of vehicles are they looking to standardize?

JD Johnson
All kinds, the batteries become, in many cases, kind of the foundation for vehicle power. For light tactical vehicles, wheeled vehicles, the battery power itself, much as with a GMC Hummer EV powers the vehicle can power the vehicle through its military missions, kinds of advantages it has is because you don’t have an internal combustion engine, you have almost no thermal signature, which on the modern battlefield is significant. You don’t want to show up like a beacon out there to those who have thermal imaging capability. But it’s also as quiet as a mouse. It’s not quite a golf cart, but not far from that. So you have a very low acoustic signature as well. When you start getting to larger vehicles like the tank that you mentioned, you have to go for something more like a hybrid solution but you need those batteries because that’s your mission power. Think about that tank turret and all the system’s in that turret and the ability to find a potential thread engage it all the sensors etc. You’ve got to have that battery power for the missions that that system has to be able to execute.

Tom Temin
In some ways that’s not all that new idea because diesel electric locomotives had been the standard for several decades now correct?

JD Johnson
There have been places in our economy in our society where they’ve made use of this now it’s it’s being scaled to a level where you could use it to power a tactical vehicle a light tactical vehicle wheeled vehicle, we’ve built a concept vehicles an example. We have right now the program of record for the United States Army for a light infantry vehicle called the F3 squad vehicle carries a nine man after he squad, very lightweight, able to be air dropped, able to be slung under a helicopter. We’ve electrified one of those just to help the Army understand the art of the possible because that’s clearly the future and the operational benefits as I’ve already spoken to are significant when you’re looking at how future forces are going to be looking for every advantage they can get.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with retired Army Lt. Gen. JD Johnson, he’s now vice president of business development for General Motors Defense. And a couple of questions. If you have, say that type of wheeled tactical vehicle range is always a question, because when you’ve got soldiers aboard, you’ve got to get to the fight. But you’ve also got to get out of it if need be and get back. And so you can’t have batteries die, you know, halfway back or more before they turn around.

JD Johnson
I think power has always been a consideration, I can tell you, when my tanks and my infantry carriers were in operations, I was watching their fuel status very closely and planned my logistics to make sure that before they had a problem, they had a chance to, in those cases receive diesel.The same is going to be true of batteries, I can tell you a helicopter pilot, and I work for a great ex-Apache pilot, trust me, he knew exactly how much fuel he had at any point in the battle, because it could be catastrophic not to know that. The military will have to do the same thing with battery power. But the beauty of battery power is and where we are today, you can get the same range of a battery powered vehicle as you can off a diesel powered vehicle. That’s where we’re at today. And since the military will more than likely initially go to hybrid vehicles, they’ll always have some diesel capability to fall back on, either to recharge that battery, or to provide power to the vehicle itself.

Tom Temin
I guess you could have a put put on board and a real emergency and just give a Yank on the chain and start the motor to get a little bit of charge in there.

JD Johnson
There’s ways of getting charge. The key is keep soldiers in the fight, you laid it out well. The last thing you want is you’re in the middle of a mission and you run out of the power that you absolutely have to have to recharge your systems. One of the advantages I haven’t spoken about yet that is really worth noting is these vehicles export power, you know, up to now vehicles have been power consumers. Now you’ve got vehicles that are power exporters. So when you think about all the electric systems that our soldiers, Marines and others have today, they’re forever having to replace batteries or charge batteries. Or whenever you’re in a situation where there’s a natural disaster, or manmade disaster for that matter. First thing that goes out is power. And right with that communications, think about an organization that can provide that power for first responders, for medical support to get critical lights back on and communications up.

Tom Temin
And does the scope of the project you’re doing with the Defense Innovation Unit also includes charging station infrastructure and the whole idea of the supply chain. I mean, that must be a question also really two separate questions. What about chargers first?

JD Johnson
So we have been investing in several different technologies, because it’s clear to us that if the military is going to have an electric vehicle, or even a hybrid vehicle, they’ve got to have the wherewithal to charge it. We’ve looked at several different technologies, and the one that has the greatest promise is hydrogen fuel cell. A hydrogen fuel cell can create a fast charger that will charge a vehicle in hours as opposed to overnight. And in fact, with just 10 minutes of fast charging, you can get up to 100 kilometers of range, which is significant in a tactical situation.

Tom Temin
And the other issue across the DoD enterprise really is supply chain security, and everything you hear about batteries, you know, there’s rare Earth, minerals from China, et cetera, et cetera, chemicals and all of this, what are the supply chain implications? And can these things be made within the materials available in the United States, or at least from nice countries?

JD Johnson
The answer is absolutely, because GM is so heavily invested in battery electric vehicles going into the future. GM wants to make sure it has a secure supply chain. So that’s from where key minerals are mined, back to where they’re refined, and ultimately where the manufacturing takes place to make sure you’ve got the quality that you have to have for your private car. But certainly the military has to have so as you just stated, bring that back home or nearshore it to friendly countries where we know we’ve got assured access.

Tom Temin
And is General Motors a prime builder, planned to be of batteries.

JD Johnson
Yes, that’s critical to the business case. We’ve just built two battery factories at about $2.3 billion apiece, there’s two more coming online. And the whole idea is to gain control over the chemistry. Gain control over the quality and drive the price down, drive performance up and get those batteries where they are successively better, more powerful lighter weight over time.

Tom Temin
And just if you would, as a final question, describe the timelines for this project, what constitutes acceptance? And how do you get it over the valley of death till there’s actually a production acquisition that goes on and you start seeing the vehicles come in to the Army?

JD Johnson
It’s a great question, because it’s an age old problem, isn’t it that great technologies don’t have a clear route to application. So one of the things that we’ve been doing in the Army and the Marines have been working really hard is to take a look at experimentation to learn as fast as you can, at the same time that you’re developing the technology. So that as you have a demand for a type vehicle that has the attributes that I’ve talked about, that that supply is there, and you can now deliver products to satisfy that demand. So I think that’s what helps bridge the valley of death that we’ve seen before.

 

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