Meet the MIT grad that engineers General Motors’ electric vehicles

Greg Hubbard spoke with Boston.com about the newest Chevrolet Volt and the much-anticipated Bolt EV.
Greg Hubbard spoke with Boston.com about the newest Chevrolet Volt and the much-anticipated Bolt EV. –Ryan Breslin / Boston.com

Greg Hubbard arrived at MIT during the mid-1990s, during the height of the alternative music scene. He noticed something funny about the alternative music his friends were listening to.

“Everyone was listening to the same music,’’ said Hubbard. “So I asked, ‘Why do you call it alternative music?’’’ It seemed pretty mainstream to him.

Hubbard sees that as an analogy for his current work as chief engineer for General Motors’ Voltec Propulsion Systems, where he leads a team of engineers that deliver electric vehicle engines, batteries, software, and charging systems. Electric vehicles, an alternative niche he started working on 25 years ago, are slowly but surely being accepted by a larger consumer base.

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“What was once considered an alternative energy vehicle is now considered mainstream,’’ said Hubbard.

The New Volt

Hubbard visited his alma mater MIT this week and brought a 2016 Chevrolet Volt with him. Hubbard took Boston.com on a quick test drive in the Volt, highlighting some of the Volt’s major changes now that it is in its second generation.

Many of the changes made to the Volt were based on input from the first generation of drivers. These changes include a 40 percent improvement in the Volt’s electric range from 30 miles to 53 miles.

For trips that are longer than 53 miles, the Volt also has a conventional gas tank that will kick in and last for 370 miles, allowing the electric battery to recharge. Hubbard believes about 80 percent of Volt drivers’ trips will rely solely on electricity.

GM’s Greg Hubbard explains the improvements made to the newest generation of the Chevrolet Volt. Enhancements include a 40 percent improvement in the Volt’s electric range and intuitive controls. —Ryan Breslin / Boston.com

The Volt’s exterior has also been given an upgrade that makes it look less like an alternative fuel car and more like an everyday sedan. On the inside, the center console is just the right size and its controls are intuitive and easy to use.

“The goal is not simply to reach the Volt enthusiasts, but a more mainstream audience as well,’’ said Hubbard.

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Bolt EV

The fully electric Chevrolet Bolt EV is one of the most-anticipated vehicles on GM’s roster. It was first unveiled as a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show last year. The first Bolts have not yet been built and are expected to hit the market later this year.

When they arrive, the Bolt promises to shake up the electric vehicle market. First, it promises a range of 200 miles, which is on par with the range offered by electric automaker Tesla’s Model S.

But the Bolt EV also promises a very un-Tesla like price of roughly $30,000 (after the federal tax credit). That’s well below the Model S price range of about $70,000.

With the Bolt EV, Hubbard brags that GM has “cracked the code’’ for delivering an electric car that offers both a longer range and an affordable price to the market.

Hubbard anticipates the Bolt EV’s 200-mile range will be a major selling point for commuters and other drivers who are worried about finding the time to recharge it.

“We’re really excited that we’ll be the first to the market with what we believe is a game-changing vehicle,’’ said Hubbard. “It’s significant because it means I don’t have to worry about charging. If [a commuter] charges every other day they don’t need to charge on such an urgent basis.’’

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New cars that don’t run on gas

This week, Hubbard is back at MIT for a specially-created class on how to design an electric vehicle. The course will include sessions on battery technology, urban mobility issues, and more.

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“As an alumnus and former resident, I’m thrilled to be talking about one of my favorite subjects,’’ said Hubbard.

Hubbard says his time at MIT and in Cambridge was instrumental in shaping his career and developing his interest in electronic propulsion systems because he was surrounded by “the very best’’ students and faculty in their respective fields.

“I saw what others were doing and said I was interested in being a leader in my field as well,’’ he said.

Looking ahead, Hubbard realizes there are still challenges to making alternative fuel vehicles like the Volt and the Bolt EV truly mainstream. EVs and hybrids only make up about 4 percent of all car sales.

Sales of alternative fuel vehicles would have to reach 20 percent to be considered mainstream, says Hubbard.

“Looking back, it’s taken us 15 years to claim 4 percent of the market,’’ said Hubbard. “I hope it won’t take us another 15 to get to the next 4 percent. I’m getting too old too quickly.’’

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