Five Questions: GM's New R-and-D Leader, Alan Taub

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Alan Taub, General Motors head of Research and Development

Alan Taub, General Motors head of Research and Development

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Alan Taub, 54, is currently Executive Director in charge of Research & Development at General Motors. He joined GM R+D as executive director in 2001, and on October 1, he will replace Larry Burns as the company's Vice President of R+D. interviewed Dr. Taub directly after his promotion was announced, one of a series of upper management changes made last month as GM started to emerge from bankruptcy with tens of billions of dollars of US government loans.

Taub worked at Ford Motor Company for eight years, where he managed the materials science department, oversaw North American vehicle crash safety, and ran vehicle engineering for Lincoln. He spent 15 years in research and development with General Electric, where he earned 26 patents.

Dr. Taub received his bachelor's degree in materials engineering from Brown University, and master's and Ph.D. degrees in applied physics from Harvard University.

Now that GM's global R+D has been integrated into Product Development, how will its role change?

Alan Taub: In the old structure, vehicles and powertrains were engineered by two different organizations, so R+D had to be neutral territory. Now, Product Development Engineering handles both of those, and also manufacturing.

That means we can be work more closely together. The process will be much more streamlined. We'll have to negotiate fewer organizational interfaces, and we can better integrate our portfolio of advanced technologies into the vehicle development process.

What's the balance between customer-driven development and "pure research"?

Taub: I have two roles. I lead our Science Labs, and I also coordinate GM's entire portfolio of advanced technology work, including the people who do the advanced engineering within the vehicle group.

We strive for balance among the parts of R+D, but we don't do any research just for its own sake. We have to go in with some application to a vehicle in mind--even if it's really high-risk, or we're not sure if and how we can do it.

We explore at the outer fringes of what's possible for vehicles, versus generic research. For that kind of thing, we partner very heavily with research universities.

In our portfolio of projects, high-risk, long-term, exploratory research is about 30 percent. That would include smart and biomimetic materials, how neural networks might be used in autos, even integration of large data bases with onboard vehicle controllers.

Then, about half of what we do is large innovation programs with our colleagues in advanced engineering. There, you might find homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) engine technologies, active safety systems, and next-generation integration of the vehicle with its surroundings.

Finally, the remaining 20 percent is short-term development activities.

What do you see as the key areas for R+D over the next 10 years?

Taub: [chuckles] Well, we manage by a list of key strategic technologies. We don't publish that list!

But basically, all our work revolves around three sustainability themes, plus work that will surprise and delight our customers.

The first sustainability theme is energy and environmental impact: high-efficiency propulsion systems, improving today's gas and diesel combustion processes, partial and full electrification (meaning hybrid and electric vehicles), and renewable energy. The goal is to be a much more efficient consumer of all fuels.

We already know we can package both extended-range electric vehicles, like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, and hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. We can meet the volume and weight requirements. The challenge is cost, cost, and cost.

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