The Volt-age that sparks GM’s top engineer? Her customer
Pam Fletcher’s accomplishments are impressive: as General Motors chief engineer for all electric vehicles, or EVs, she leads a critical sector of of the company, designing and building electric and hybrid cars and trucks. But that’s not what sparks her enthusiasm and quickens her pulse.
It’s her customer.
Surprising, perhaps, for a woman as accomplished as Pam is: General Motor’s chief engineer of EVs, she developed racing engines for GM and for McLaren, led the charge to put hybrid technology into the company’s trucks and SUVs, helped to develop the Chevrolet Volt—one of GM’s most important cars—and runs a multi-national department that oversees electrified vehicles company-wide.
But ask her about the newly revealed 2016 Volt and she gets flat out excited. That’s because the Volt’s customers, who love the car as much as she does, helped to shape the changes in the 2016 model.
Pam and her team were able to track the habits of Volt drivers, generate feedback and data, to ask questions, gather opinions and build wish lists to help shape the next generation of the car.
The 2016 Volt: The result of happy customers
What resulted is a car that makes Pam beam with pride: A sleeker, more luxurious Volt. It now comes with heated rear seats, wireless cell phone charging, seating for 5, a more aerodynamic shape, a sportier look, a sport mode that allows the car to be more responsive and traction mode that allows the gas and electric engines to work together under strenuous driving conditions, a more intuitive charge system and the holy grail of electric cars: greater electric range. The new model will go an estimated 50 miles on a charge with about the same charge time, potentially allowing Volt owners to save thousands of dollars a year on fuel and drive thousands of miles between fill-ups.
Shifting Gears From Speed Queen to Leading Green
Surprisingly, alternative fuel technologies and electric vehicles aren’t where Pam’s passion started; she first fell in love with racing as a child assisting her father, a racing hobbyist. Growing up in Ohio and North Carolina, she was the oldest of three girls and it fell to her to assist her dad on the track. “My mom was a big proponent, too; she never said ‘girls don’t do that.’” She was hooked, she said, and with an interest in engineering, decided she wanted a career working with cars. After graduating from the General Motors Institute (now knows as Kettering University), she worked on the company’s racing engines, then on McLaren’s racing engines. But it was that eeking and tweaking to get every bit of performance out of an engine that sparked her passion for EVs. “It made me a lot more aware of why it’s important to find alternatives,” Pam said, “and that they can be great cars and change the world a bit, too.”
Constantly perfecting her game
Pam continued to build her education at Wayne State University, where she earned a masters degree, and at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business where she attended executive programs. She returned to GM in 2005 just as the company was starting to develop the Volt. Her initial role was developing hybrid engines for the company’s large trucks, such as the Chevrolet Suburban. Critics of these engine systems downplayed the significance, saying the fuel savings weren’t enough. But Pam sees it differently: not only “is improving fuel efficiency of higher consuming vehicles important, if your goal is to save barrels of oil, a 25 per cent improvement will save more oil” than an efficient compact car. Lessons learned in building those hybrid systems ultimately took her to the Volt team: she was made chief engineer of propulsion and then, chief engineer for all EVs.
What Inspires Her
“The drive experience is really what gets me,” Pam says. “I drive a Volt, then I get in a conventional car and I’m bothered by the engine noise, the revving. Volt is such a luxury experience. It’s so quiet, the smoothness” of the ride, of not having to go to the gas station, she says. But it also has the satisfaction of a performance car. Pam loves “the kick you get when stepping on accelerator.” That means there’s no hesitation when merging onto the highway or in passing a truck.
Engineering drives, but jewelry delights
Don’t let the mechanically minded engineer in her be deceiving. Pam is equally as effusive about the Volt’s interior as she is about its performance. She excitedly gave us a tour of the rich and refined cabin that features a nook carved out of the center dash for storage and phone charging, the edited dashboard with ambient lighting, and rich leather upholstery that customers have as an option.
And, Pam says excitedly, jewelry. Jewelry? Yes! A glowing sapphire jewel that tops the gear shift. So the delight of the car isn’t just under the hood, under your foot and in saving fuel, but it’s that spark when your eye catches the glowing gem in your hand, and the satisfaction that Pam and Volt drivers have in knowing that together they’ve created a gem of a car.