A123 Systems loses, LG Chem wins, when GM in-house’s Spark EV battery pack assembly

General Motors Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant’s
LaTanya Clanton works on the Spark EV battery line
Tuesday, May 13, 2014 in Brownstown, Michigan.
GM is bringing all of its electric vehicle battery building capabilities in-house
with production of battery systems for the
2015 Chevrolet Spark EV at Brownstown.
The plant already manufactures complete packs
for the Chevrolet Volt, Opel Ampera and Cadillac ELR.
(Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

Maybe GM doesn’t appear serious about electric cars because the Chevy Spark EV cannot be built in large quantity because of A123 Systems?  The other day I wrote that GM doesn’t appear to be too enthusiastic about electric cars because Volt sales are more anemic than they should be, and the Spark EV is being made in tiny quantities.  GM’s announcement today about bringing Spark EV battery pack production in-house is making me rethink that theory.  Maybe, oh maybe, the troubles at A123 Systems made it impossible for GM to build the Spark EV in large quantity?

Actually, that’s not the case, because the decisions on the Spark EV were made before A123 Systems imploded.  Let’s go over both parts of this.

The Spark EV is an electric version of the Chevy Spark.  That car is made by GM’s subsidiary in Korea, and is a popular car around the world.  The gasoline version is sold in the U.S. as well as abroad.  The EV version is being sold only in California and Oregon, and GM is limiting production (hence sales) to a tiny amount.

GM, as do the other automakers, has to acquire from somewhere enough ZEV credits to be able to continue selling gasoline powered cars in California.  Spark EV sales earn more credits per car than do Volt sales.

General Motors is bringing all of its
electric vehicle battery building capabilities in-house
with production of battery systems for the
2015 Chevrolet Spark EV at
Brownstown Battery Assembly in Brownstown, Michigan.
The plant already manufactures complete packs
for the Chevrolet Volt, Opel Ampera and Cadillac ELR.
(Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

Famously, A123 Systems was in the running to build battery cells for the Chevy Volt.  At the time A123 Systems was a darling of the cleantech startup companies.  I think Google even invested in the company.

A123 Systems’ implosion

Since there’s some confusion about A123’s implosion, let me summarize.  A123 Systems developed one of the first implementations of the Lithium Iron Phosphate battery technology.  While LiFePO4 batteries aren’t so great at energy density (kilowatt-hours per kilogram or per liter of volume) they are extremely safe.  Further, A123 Systems was able to ensure their cells could withstand high discharge rates.

As a startup company, the company had no track record especially in producing automotive grade cells.  When GM designed the Volt, they looked at all the battery cell makers to see who would win the cell supply deal.  A123 Systems was on the list, but at the end of the day GM went with LG Chem in part because LG Chem is a tried-and-true battery manufacturer.

A123 Systems eventually landed a deal with Fisker Automotive for supplying complete battery packs.  They also landed a deal with GM on supplying either complete packs or cells for the Chevy Spark EV.


Why A123 Systems imploded is a complex story which I wrote up elsewhere.  Basically – they made a business mistake, overly relying on a single customer (Fisker) – they didn’t catch QA problems in the battery packs, but instead Fisker found those problems – the problems led to a recall effort, the expense of which blew a hole in A123’s financial well-being – etc

A123 Systems, LLC was created by Chinese autoparts maker Wanxiang after they bought most of A123 Systems, Inc’s assets out of bankruptcy.

General Motors Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant
worker Tina Oaks attaches wiring harnesses
on a Spark EV battery pack
Tuesday, May 13, 2014 in Brownstown, Michigan.
GM is bringing all of its
electric vehicle battery building capabilities
in-house with production of battery systems
for the 2015 Chevrolet Spark EV at Brownstown.
The plant already manufactures complete packs
for the Chevrolet Volt, Opel Ampera and Cadillac ELR.
(Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

Getting back to the Spark EV

What GM announced today is that, working with LG Chem, battery packs for the 2015 Chevy Spark EV will be built at GM’s Brownstone factory. “Using our in-house engineering and manufacturing expertise enabled us to deliver a battery system that is more efficient and lighter than the 2014 Spark EV without sacrificing range,” said Larry Nitz, executive director of GM global transmission and electrification engineering. “Our successful working relationship with LG Chem has allowed us to deliver a new battery system for the Spark EV that helps us to better leverage our economies of scale.”

A123 Systems, LLC, is losing out here.  LG Chem is winning.

The new pack holds 19 kilowatt-hours in 192 cells, for a total weight of 474 lbs.  This is 86 lbs lighter than the packs A123 Systems supplied to GM.

The change won’t affect the 2015 Spark EV’s range or efficiency ratings from the EPA.  It’ll still be rated for 82 miles of range, and fuel efficiency equaling 119 MPGe.

LG Chem builds the cells at a factory in Michigan – built with some federal loans.  Ford also gets cells from LG Chem from the same factory, reportedly.

GM has long expressed a belief that just as automakers must have engine building expertise today, automakers of the future must have expertise in-house in building and designing battery packs.  In-house’ing Chevy Spark EV battery pack production fits that vision.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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