What is GM Ultium Drive?

Jack R. Nerad | Sep 17, 2020

Ultium Drive is a system of drive units and electric motors that will propel the next generation of electric vehicles from General Motors. A collection of components that can be mixed and matched to power a wide range of vehicles, the Ultium Drive system will provide GM with advantages in performance, scale, speed to market, and manufacturing efficiency versus assembling EVs on a piecemeal or one-off basis. It marks a new commitment by GM to the electric vehicle market.

GMC Hummer Electric Truck Front View

GM EV1 Paved Path to Ultium Drive

Many scoffed in 1996 when General Motors introduced its General Motors EV1 battery-electric car. Though it was the darling of the environmental set, the small car's limited range made it impractical for most buyers, and it vanished by the year 2000. But the lessons GM engineers learned with the EV1 were called into play as they developed subsequent models like the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric and the Chevrolet Bolt battery-electric cars. 

Now, Ultium Drive continues in that tradition. It is designed to help GM transition from its current portfolio of vehicles to a fully electric lineup and, in the process, offer consumers cars, trucks, and SUVs that have significant advantages over vehicles powered by conventional internal combustion engines (ICE).

Ultium Drive in Overview

Ultium Drive combines electric motors and single-speed transmissions with power stored in Ultium battery cells to propel GM's upcoming array of EVs. The automaker says vehicles built using the Ultium modular drivetrain architecture could offer driving ranges of up to 400 miles on a full charge and 0-to-60 mph acceleration as low as three seconds flat. 

While not every GM EV will offer that level of scorching performance, vehicles equipped with Ultium Drive should be more responsive than their ICE equivalents. GM says its Ultium Drive electric motors will provide industry-leading torque and power density across various vehicle types. The motors' precision torque control is among their most essential characteristics, enabling smooth performance and excellent all-around drivability.

A critical factor in both drivability and performance is the effective transfer of an electric motor's torque to the driving wheels. Starting with the EV1 effort of 25 years ago, GM engineering has gained significant expertise in that crucial area. 

"GM has built transmissions for many notable automakers," said Ken Morris, GM vice president, Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Programs. "Making motors, transmissions, driveline components, and systems are among GM's best-known competencies, and our manufacturing expertise is proving not only transferable but advantageous as we make the transition to EVs."

Ultium Drive in Detail

The GM Ultium Drive array of modular components consists of five interchangeable drive units and three motors. Each of the drive units can pair with one or more of three motors, including a primary motor, configurable for front- or rear-wheel drive, and an all-wheel-drive assist motor for vehicles offering that upgrade. 

The modular family of mixable driveline components enables GM engineers to fashion systems for various vehicles, including high-performance cars, off-road trucks, and family SUVs. GM engineers suggest the power and versatility of the drive units will help them transition vehicle segments that require high-output propulsion systems, like pickup trucks and performance cars, to all-electric propulsion.

One of the benefits of GM's experience in engineering EVs is its ability to develop lighter and more efficient EV powertrains that feature intelligent integration. For example, by integrating the power electronics into the drive units' assemblies, the mass of the power electronics has been reduced by nearly 50 percent from GM's previous EV generation. That saves cost and space while at the same time offering a 25% increase in overall capability.

One area of remarkable efficiency is the Ultium battery system. With battery options from 50 to 200 kilowatt-hours, GM can arrange Ultium cells in different combinations of flexible modules and battery packs. The Ultium batteries will have leading-edge chemistries with some of the highest nickel and lowest cobalt content in a large format pouch cell. GM has entered into a joint venture with LG Chem to develop and mass-produce battery cells that the carmaker says could drive cell costs below $100 per kWh.

The new battery arrays are controlled by an almost entirely wireless battery management system that reduces physical wiring between battery modules in production electric vehicles by up to 90 percent. This approach makes the manufacturing of EVs much simpler and more efficient.

At the same time it created the new technology, GM simultaneously developed the first EVs that will use the Ultium Drive driveline components and batteries, such as the Cadillac Lyriq and upcoming GMC Hummer pickup truck (seen above). GM says this will improve efficiency and offer optimum component integration. According to the automaker, most of the Ultium Drive components, including castings, gears, and assemblies, will be built with globally sourced parts at GM's existing global propulsion facilities on shared, flexible assembly lines.

"As with other propulsion systems that are complex, capital intensive, and contain a great deal of intellectual property, we're always better off making them ourselves," said Adam Kwiatkowski, GM executive chief engineer, Global Electrical Propulsion. "GM's full lineup of EVs should benefit from the simultaneous engineering of Ultium Drive. Our commitment to increased vertical integration is expected to bring additional cost efficiency to the performance equation."

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