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GM to build electric motors for next-gen hybrid

Rather than rely on outsiders, GM says it will build more powerful, smaller electric motors for a hybrid powertrain due in 2013 because the technology, like batteries, is strategic in the long term.

General Motors plans to open a $246 million factory in the U.S. to build electric motors for a hybrid vehicle platform due in three years.

Later this week, GM is expected to announce the location of the motor plant, which will be partially funded by a $105 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, company executives said on Monday. It says it's the first U.S. automaker to design and build its own motors.

The auto giant decided to make at least some of its electric motors, which move electrically driven cars and hybrids, because the technology is strategic to its future as the industry shifts toward electrification. "To the extent that a (gasoline) engine is core, these motors will be core," said Tom Stephens, GM's vice president of global product operations, during a media briefing on Monday.

GM doesn't intend to manufacture all its motors; it plans to tap an outside supplier for the Chevy Volt, for example. But building and designing its own gives the company expertise in working with suppliers to ensure it is getting high-quality motors and other electrical components, said Peter Savagian, engineering director of hybrid and electrical architectures and motors.

Key to GM's future for hybrids and electric cars: an electric traction motor (right) and stator at GM's Powertrain Engineering Development Center in Pontiac, Mich. General Motors

The motors GM does intend to build will go into a rear-wheel-drive hybrid powertrain now under development and due in unspecified vehicles in 2013, executives said.

The hybrid technology will be a successor to the hybrid platform now offered in GM SUVs and full-size pickup trucks. But because the new motor technology will be 25 percent smaller and 25 percent more powerful, it can be used in sedans as well, Stephens said. Overall, it will make GM hybrids more fuel efficient, he said.

The upgraded hybrid platform could be significant to GM's turnaround efforts. Although GM has gotten a lot of attention for the extended-range electric Chevy Volt, auto analysts project hybrids will outsell all-electric and extended-range electric vehicles significantly this decade.

GM opened its own battery pack manufacturing plant last year because it considers that technology, too, to be core to its strategy.

Rather than have one motor suit many different vehicles, GM expects that there will be a range of products for different uses. For example, electrical components for all-electric vehicles, which GM is considering, will be different from a hybrid, noted Savagian.

There is concern over the supply over rare-earth elements, such as neodymium, which are often sourced in China and sometimes used for permanent magnets in electrical motors. Savagian said that GM's main concern is the cost of these materials and that the company could change technologies in response to price spikes.