General Motors Co., state, and local officials are to visit the company’s Toledo Powertrain Plant on Tuesday where they are expected to announce plans to invest an additional $260 million and hire up to 400 additional employees to produce new fuel-efficient eight-speed transmissions for upcoming products.
Dan Akerson, GM’s chairman and chief executive officer, is expected to join Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the plant at 1455 West Alexis Rd. for the announcement, scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. It was unclear whether the new transmission would be a front-wheel or rear-wheel-drive product or what new models might use it, because GM was not providing details before the announcement.
No GM noncommercial domestic vehicle has a transmission with more than six speeds, although the automaker did reveal a concept SUV, the Buick Envision, last month in Shanghai that it said had an eight-speed transmission.
The Toledo plant, cited repeatedly by the prestigious Harbour Report as the most productive transmission plant in North America, has 1,635 hourly and salaried employees and currently builds six-speed rear-wheel and front-wheel-drive transmissions for a variety of GM products, including the hot-selling, high-volume Chevrolet Cruze and Chevrolet Malibu.
The plant’s front-wheel-drive line, which began production in 2010, has two shifts and could add a third shift soon, bringing an additional 80 to 110 jobs into the mix, if sales of the Cruze and Malibu continue at their current pace, officials with the United Auto Workers have said.
Plant and union officials have said they expect 250 to 400 new jobs. At least some would be new workers because the plant has exhausted its hiring list of laid-off employees from regional plants. The new hires would make $14 an hour, or half the wage of a veteran GM worker as negotiated with the UAW when the company headed into bankruptcy two years ago.
The local announcement is part of the automaker’s expected $2 billion in investment in plants in eight states. GM awarded $504 million to the Toledo Powertrain Plant in 2006 to build six-speed, rear-wheel-drive transmissions and invested an addition $350 million in the plant in 2007 to build a new front-wheel-drive, six-speed transmission.
The transmission unveiled in Shanghai last month was different from most vehicles in that it was augmented by a pair of electric motor generators in its dual automatic/manual design. A plug-in hybrid, the Envision would run solely on electric power when it is being started, is parked, or is running at low speeds, GM said.
When the vehicle needs more power or the battery is running low, the engine automatically kicks in to provide a smart charge for its lithium-ion battery.
When greater power is required, such as during sudden acceleration and uphill driving, the engine serves as the main power source, with the generator providing additional power.
It was unclear whether the eight-speed transmission detailed for the Envision concept is the product to be announced in Toledo today.
As domestic automakers have aggressively pursued higher fuel efficiency for their vehicles, they have focused increasingly on engine and transmission technology to do so.
Chrysler Group LLC, for example, has said it plans to introduce a nine-speed transmission in its upcoming models.
Additional gears in an automatic transmission allow an automobile a wider range of ratios to choose from to more efficiently supply torque to the wheels at lower revolutions from the engine, increasing fuel economy.
Automakers also have employed continuously variable transmissions — which do not shift so much as they smoothly transition across a power spectrum — to increase fuel economy, but consumers have been less than enthusiastic about the performance and driving dynamics of those transmissions.
“That’s a big trend that we’ve been seeing over the last few years. It wasn’t that long ago that a four speed or even a three-speed automatic was all we ever needed,” said Ed Kim, of industry consultant AutoPacific Inc., in Tustin, Calif. “The reason for all these gears is mainly focused around fuel efficiency. The more gears you have, the more likely you can have the engine run at the most efficient speed for the given task.
“Right now, the highest number of gears GM has in a production car is six, and they’ve done a good job in getting their six speeds proliferated across their lineup, whereas there are other manufacturers out there that may offer transmissions with more gears, but they haven’t gotten them as spread across the lineup as GM has,” Mr. Kim said.
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