Hybrid transmission upshifts hope at GM

The Baltimore Sun

WHITE MARSH -- Both General Motors Corp. and its workers saw the minting of the Allison Transmission plant's first hybrid transmission yesterday as much more than just a new product. It is a lifeline for both.

The nation's largest automaker is producing the industry's first hybrid transmission for light trucks here in a bid to regain market share from foreign competitors such as Toyota Motor Corp. If it is a success, GM plans to expand the product line, which could mean new jobs at the plant.

That is the hope shared by Blake Barb of Bel Air, whose job is to deliver materials to the assembly lines. He feels fortunate to be at Allison after seeing more than 1,000 GM workers laid off at the van assembly plant on Broening Highway in Southeast Baltimore two years ago. Many of those workers are still waiting for jobs to open up at Allison.

When the White Marsh plant was selected for the hybrid line, it allayed any fears he had about his job security.

"This place is going to be here awhile," said Barb, 52, who has been with GM for 30 years and worked at Broening Highway. "I have no doubt in my mind about that."

GM spent $225 million building the Allison plant in 1999 and poured another $118 million into equipping it to manufacture the hybrid transmission. About 40 of the plant's 440 workers manufacture the hybrid transmission during a single shift. If there is strong market demand, the plant could add another shift, said plant manager Thomas Gallagher, which could mean another 40 jobs.

Yesterday, officials from GM and the United Auto Workers union, the governor and Maryland's congressional delegation watched as the first transmission was hoisted onto a stage, not far from the assembly line. Music blasted from speakers and multicolored theater lights lit up the stage.

"This plant plays a significant role in that future," said John Buttermore, vice president of global manufacturing at GM Powertrain.

The hybrid transmission uses gasoline and battery power.

The transmission has two electric motors and four fixed gears that distribute gas and electric power where needed.

The gasoline-electric transmissions typically boost fuel economy by 50 percent for city driving and 10 percent on highways. It can tow 6,000 pounds, about 10 percent less than conventional transmissions.

The technology was developed through a partnership between GM, DaimlerChrysler AG and the BMW Group. GM is banking on it to boost flagging sales and set it apart from the competition touting smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. GM announced yesterday that it would build a hybrid technology research center in Shanghai.

Buttermore said the company has no immediate plans to expand the White Marsh facility, but GM spent about $1 million prepping land behind the building for future construction, according to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith. "I'm looking forward to the doubling of the plant," Smith said.

This summer, GM sold Allison Transmission to Carlyle Group and Onex Corp. for $5.6 billion. However, the sale excluded the Baltimore County plant, and GM retained the intellectual property rights related to hybrid technology.

GM will begin shipping Chevrolet Tahoes and GMC Yukons with the hybrid transmission next month. Each can carry eight passengers and offer the same fuel economy in the city as a four-cylinder Toyota Camry, Buttermore said. The two-wheel drive versions get 21 miles to the gallon in the city and 22 miles on the highway, according to federal ratings.

The company plans to expand the line to the Cadillac Escalade, GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado next year.


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