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Catching Up With: GM Global Propulsion Systems VP Dan Nicholson

General Motors wants to stage a diesel revival

SANTA MONICA, California — Earlier this year, General Motors released the company’s latest diesel engine, a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder set to slot into the brand’s Chevrolet Cruze and Equinox, as well as GMC’s Terrain.

While many wondered if GM lost its mind after Dieselgate, the company is confident that it can reclaim the public’s trust and return diesel’s image to one that not only makes sense in terms of practicality and reliability, but one that’s also better for the environment.

We sat down with Dan Nicholson, General Motor’s Vice President for Global Propulsion Systems, in Santa Monica, California to talk about GM’s current and future diesel plans.

Automobile Magazine: How much of an impact does diesel still represent to the U.S. market after Dieselgate?

Dan Nicholson: I think the technology still makes sense for a lot of customers in the U.S. What we’re committed to is providing choice to customers. We still think there are a lot of customers where diesel made sense to them and they knew why they liked that technology—for the fuel economy and the driving character that they had—and we don’t think those customers went away. The number of [engine] choices in the market has been decreased over the last couple years, and we’re trying to bring those choices back.

AM: Is General Motors just trying to carve up the market that Volkswagen left behind?

DN: It would be foolish for us not to [try to sell to this market] and we think the diesel customers are still there and that they’re, let’s call it “more loyal,” to the technology than a particular brand; VAG in this instance.

AM: What is GM forecasting as the take rate of the new 1.6-liter diesel and the rest of the diesel lineup?

DN: We’re not forecasting a take-rate (diesel sales rose 16.5 percent in 2017 according to GM’s presentation). The situation, because of our global scale, we do not need a large percentage of sales to break even or make sense for us. We’re really out there trying to build on what’s a great vehicle and offer a propulsion choice that we think will be very attractive to some customers and hopefully attract people to the brand. But we don’t have a target. We really don’t need to have a high percentage to work for us.

AM: What do you think of Mazda’s new HCCI engine which essentially gives you all the benefits of a diesel, (torque, greater mpg), but with a gas engine?

DN: Without really commenting on Mazda, we found its announcement interesting. We’ll be watching it and all the other competitive intelligence. We understand HCCI technology really well. We haven’t chosen to bring that [technology] to market yet because we can’t find the formula that makes sense to customers; yet. We’re not introducing technology for technology’s sake, we’re introducing technology that’s customer centric and customer focused. We will of course be watching with interest when the product actually gets to market.

AM: That said, with HCCI engines coming to market, better gasoline technology, and General Motor’s push toward electrification (i.e. Volt and Bolt), and indeed the rest of the automotive landscape’s push for EVs, is there a long-term place for diesel?

DN: I do see diesel in the future and I see it as one of many choices as we said. I think what we’re trying to do is develop propulsion systems that make sense for different kinds of customers. This leads to better informed customers so that they’re picking the technology that’s right for them.

Bolt EVs are right for a lot of people, especially if they have a workplace that has EV charging and they’re not commuting very far. That is awesome technology and we’re super proud of it. Extended range works for a lot of customers, as diesel does for another kind of customer.

If you’re driving a lot of miles per year, it’s mostly highway, you want to go on extended trips, and you live in say an area like Wyoming, then you might not be a Bolt customer. You might be a diesel Cruze/Equinox customer. It’s all about choice.

AM: How do you plan on gaining the public’s trust back in diesel after the enormity of Dieselgate?

DN: Right, well we’re committed to compliance of the standards. The U.S. really has the toughest tailpipe emissions standards in the world and we’ve worked hand-in-hand with regulators throughout the whole process to be very transparent with what technologies that we have and how the vehicles perform on the required tests so that it’s really understood. We hope that the public at large can have trust in the regulators whose job it is to regulate this and by us working with the regulators and us demonstrating and showing compliance that the public’s trust is returned because really, the technology itself was not the problem…I don’t think diesel customers forgot why they liked driving diesels in the last two years. They didn’t forget about the driving character or the fuel economy. If they can be convinced that there’s a really great diesel product available, I think they’ll come and investigate further.

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