Will GM’s Ultium Drive be the small-block V-8 for a generation of EVs?


The ubiquitous General Motors 350 small-block V-8, which went into generations of vehicles, made GM strong. For decades it was offered in a wide range of output levels and to this day is made by the company as a crate engine for hobbyists.

GM announced Tuesday, in a move harking back to its treatment of core engine and transmission components in the past—and, hopefully, to its future making more than niche electric vehicles—that it will refer to some of the key components in its upcoming EVs as “Ultium Drive.”

As the automaker described, Ultium Drive will apply to the power electronics, motors, and single-speed transmissions—essentially the portions of the propulsion system outside of the battery pack.

GM Ultium Drive family

As GM outlined in March, the Ultium component set will be comprised of five interchangeable drive units and three motors, allowing a wide range of power outputs, with front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive layouts. The Ultium range includes high-performance vehicles and those with off-road ability—like the 2022 GMC Hummer EV that’s due to be revealed October 20. 

Combined vehicle output from one to three motors will range from 235 horsepower to 1,000 hp, and battery capacity will range up to 200 kilowatt-hours and about 400 miles—with the potential for 600 miles via more energy-dense cells by mid-decade.

2022 GMC Hummer EV SUV profile

GM promises “industry-leading torque and power density” from the motors themselves, and it says that by integrating the power electronics into the drive unit assemblies, the mass of the combined components has been cut nearly in half versus what’s in the Bolt EV.

Either Tesla or Lucid Motors—both California-based—will likely hold the standard to beat. Earlier this month Lucid announced a power density of 41 hp per liter for its entire drive units, to debut on the Air electric luxury sedan next spring.

GM won’t actually manufacture its motors, company officials confirmed in March. Today’s release walked that back somewhat, stating that it will “lead design, development and manufacturing of its next-generation EV drive units and motors.”

General Motors\’ BEV3 platform and Ultium batteries

The company said that most of the components for Ultium Drive systems would be “built with globally sourced parts at GM’s existing global propulsion facilities on shared, flexible assembly lines.” That will make it easier to ramp up production, adjust the model mix, and get to economies of scale, the automaker explained.

The strategy otherwise closely follows GM’s precedent with the small-block V-8, or in making components like Turbo-Hydramatic transmissions, which were sourced for products from Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Ferrari, or with its Ecotec engine family, which was used in the Fisker Karma. 

GM\’s 100-millionth small block being built

“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,” Ken Morris, GM’s VP for autonomous and electric vehicle programs, said in a release accompanying the announcement. 

GM stresses that Ultium Drive will help it migrate “high-output segments” like pickups and performance cars to all-electric. In future partnerships that might follow the one announced with Nikola Corporation last week, it also establishes a dividing line—and perhaps a future business line—in which the company’s legacy for support and manufacturing expertise are just as important as any newfound tech focus.


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