Denise Gray, CEO of LG Chem Power Inc.Enlarge Photo
Denise Gray is used to challenges in her career, generally over new technologies.
As a young engineer at GM, she first designed electrical components, then got her first major managerial role on the team to develop what became the 1997 Corvette.
She was given the responsibility of introducing and enforcing modern software-testing and approval protocols for the electronic powertrain control systems.
That led to an expanded role ensuring that all powertrain projects throughout General Motors used suitably rigorous use-case and testing protocols.
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Eight years ago, Gray was designated to run the GM battery testing and validation lab that would assess lithium-ion cells for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car.
Gray left GM in 2010, before the Volt launched, to work for startup battery-pack supplier Atieva, in Silicon Valley. Then she spent some time in Europe running the electrified powertrain group at supplier AVL.
As of last September, however, she's back in Detroit--as CEO of LG Chem Power, the U.S. arm of the large and influential Korean battery cell and pack supplier.
Unlike Panasonic and AESC, which are tied exclusively to Tesla Motors and the Renault-Nissan alliance respectively, LG Chem supplies literally dozens of vehicle makers around the world.
2011 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
With intimate knowledge of the cell chemistries and production facilities for electrified vehicles all over the world, Gray is almost uniquely positioned to comment on the industry.
This reporter first interviewed Gray almost a decade ago, in her role as leader of the Volt battery lab--even before GM's bankruptcy and government-backed restructuring.
Green Car Reports sat down with her at last month's Detroit Auto Show to catch up on eight years of electric-car progress and learn more about LG Chem.
Gray has always been discreet, and no breaking news came out of the discussion. Instead, she shared how she sees the plug-in world playing out from the LG unit that could become the highest-volume cell supplier to the world's auto industry.
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What follows is a condensed and edited version of that 90-minute interview.
Q: What did you take away from being inside the development team for the first-generation Volt?
A: It was great fun! It was like a startup inside the company. We had unparalleled access to executives at the highest levels; they shared the risk and the decision-making with the team.
Denise Gray, director of global battery systems engineering, General MotorsEnlarge Photo
And those decisions were quick.
For me, it was a great opportunity to see how company leaders thought, how they approached solving problems.
Even before the 2011 Volt was released, the team for the second-generation car had been established--with a goal of cutting the battery cost in half.
It had different people, and it was in a different location than the existing Volt team. But we could see, even then, the roadmap to get from 2010 costs to 2015 costs--and that it was possible.
The goals for the Generation 1 Volt were robustness first, and cost second--to get it out in time. The second generation had to be equally robust, but it also had to meet its cost targets.
Question: What did you learn in your time at Atieva and then AVL?
Answer: I was able to interface with all the other carmakers--and get some validation from the industry for the work we did on the Volt as well.
We'd hear, "Great car, and a great battery."
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It was the right time for me to do a startup, after spending my entire career with General Motors. It was then or never.
I learned about venture capital, and spent a lot of time on products mainly focused on Chinese carmakers and the market in China. We had manufacturing in Shanghai, and engineering support in Taiwan as well.
Chevrolet Sail Electric Concept VehicleEnlarge Photo
Even at GM, there was an awareness that China would move from a niche market to the mainstream for electrified vehicles. And I had the U.S. experience from the Volt.
So I was able to learn about doing business in China, and learn more and faster doing it for a Chinese company.
I learned that expectations for Tier 1 suppliers are different there. In North America, Tier 1 suppliers know the industry and its requirements deeply, and they can help figure out design requirements.
There, they simply build to the plan, with contract manufacturers--the carmaker does all the engineering, even makes the decision on when the supplier's plant goes into production.