Tom Stephens ran out of the house one morning at 6am when it was barely light. The drive was like a skating rink. He grabbed at the corner of his car as he went down but it was too late. He lay there unconscious in the feeble dawn light bleeding and badly injured, writes Rob Golding.

Luckily, his wife looked out and could see him. He was taken to hospital for repairs to face and chest which took several days.  As he recovered he talked to his doctors. “Your systems stink,” is how he summarises what he told them.

Ever since, the doctors have been inviting him back for inspection visits and consultation. Never before had they been confronted with such an organised mind with such analytical advice.

The story is illuminating for two reasons. Firstly, he starts early, works late and hurries everywhere. Time is short. He has more to do than there are hours in the day. He runs 84 factories in 17 countries and makes 37,000 engines a day. His company is not yet restored to full health.

As GM’s group vice president of global powertrain, it is his job to hit the political targets, the commercial targets and the cost targets required by the shifting consumer requirements and demanding legislation.

Secondly, he has to make sense of a nightmarish 3-D matrix of markets, models and technologies. It is that discipline that has made his analytical powers razor sharp.  He starts telling me what engines and transmissions he has got already, what he is going to have in his locker, and by when. Then he helpfully comes up with the perfect summary:  “We are trying to offer what nobody else does. That is a full consumer choice.”

GM still has some competitive advantages despite the decline the company has suffered, and a wide and complete choice of power units is one of them. For many years, Stephens has run a policy of having an engine of every type on the shelf. And if it has not actually been built, it is production-ready because of a robust design system that the engineers have pioneered that gives them confidence that whatever they design they can build first time OK.

“When I was a young engineer we had to design a new engine for a new car that was to be built in a new factory. The factory was built, the car was put together but the engine did not work.  A year later, it still did not work.” It was a traumatic experience for a young man and the lesson stayed with him. Now it’s his toy box and he will never let there be a new vehicle project for which he does not have a ready choice of propulsions.

He is comfortable with the new technologies – in particular lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. “We are on a journey to increase electrification and eventually on to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. “

Though GM has never said it outright, there is a supposition that it will have sufficient confidence in lithium-ion batteries for a small car offering by 2010. That is the Chevrolet Volt announced at the Detroit show in January 2006. Many competitors say that it is impossible. GM says in response that there are so many types of lithium battery that few people can make a judgement right across the many permutations. 

Stephens simply says: “We get development battery packs next month [March] or the month after.” The Volt is a plug-in hybrid, designed to be recharged overnight but with an on-board liquid fuel generator to extend the range when necessary.

That’s still near enough three full years to hit a 2010 production date. If the schedule was already a complete non-starter, Stephens would have said so. He is also parading his Chevrolet Equinox which has an electric drive powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Having driven one of his 100-vehicle test fleet it is clear that it is in an advanced stage of development. It is quick off the mark despite the SUV’s great weight and is completely free from mechanical noise. The tailpipe emits water vapour. And nothing else.  He reveals that he has been developing hydrogen fuel cells on the quiet for the last six years.

He is rapidly fettling all his conventional gasoline engines so that by 2012, half of his production will be flex-fuel – capable of taking ethanol and gasoline in any combination. “Converting fuel pumps and vehicles is neither difficult nor expensive.”

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) changes do not please GM greatly. The new target is 35mpg by 2018. Stephens said: “We have been improving fuel economy as a matter of course by 1% to 2% a year. This requires 3.3% a year – a good 50% more year after year after year.”

He does not moan. He reckons not to once new measures become law. But Bob Lutz the new vehicle director at GM has gone on record as saying that without the help of vastly increased fuel duties the heavy weight of responsibility rests on the vehicle makers. Draconian fuel duty would drive demand to small cars. Without them, Americans will still want the trucks and pick-ups they always drive. So the OEMs have to spend a fortune on new technologies and a fortune on the old technology as well. Not clever of American politicians when the US auto industry is so deep in the poo.

Stephens draws breath. His fifteen-hour days must be draining. What does he do to relax? He brightens. “I have some cars.” When he says some he means a shed-full, and he does the rebuilds himself. He has a 427 Cobra, a 66 Impala rebuilt for 560 brake horsepower, a 70 Buick Grand Sport. And of course a 66 Corvette.  Amongst  other things. “I don’t make enough money to buy all the cars that I want,” he says, and then reels off stuff in the current range that he really needs to get hold of.

He is 59 and a hopeless case – determined to reduce tailpipe emissions to water, oil dependency to nil and he is still at the run trying to do it all. He thinks he might go into hospital management consultancy business if he ever gives up the car industry. The chances of that happening look remote.

Rob Golding


Thomas G. Stephens

Thomas G. Stephens is GM’s group vice president responsible for Global Powertrain, an organization with 52,000 employees working at more than 80 manufacturing plants and engineering centres in 17 countries.  Together, they produce about 36,000 engines and 32,000 transmissions a day.  Stephens also serves as GM's global process leader for quality, chairs GM's Energy and Environmental Strategy Board, and serves on GM's North America and Automotive Strategy Boards. Stephens began his career with General Motors in 1969 as an hourly employee at the Chevrolet Engineering Centre in Warren, Michigan, under the University of Michigan's student co-op program. Upon graduation, he became a junior engineer at the Cadillac Motor Car Division in Detroit.

He served the next nine years as an experimental engineer and staff project engineer in the experimental laboratories before being promoted to supervisor of product engineering in 1980. Two years later, Stephens was named staff engineer of emissions and transmissions. In 1985, he joined the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac Powertrain Division as senior staff engineer of transmissions and powertrain controls.

He served as assistant chief engineer for Cadillac's 4.5 litre V-8 engine. In 1988, he was promoted to plant manager at the B-O-C Powertrain Livonia Engine Plant. In 1990, Stephens was named director of engineering for GM Engine Division. He became director of engine engineering for GM Powertrain in December 1991, when the division was formed. He was appointed engineering operations general manager for GM Powertrain Group in Pontiac, Michigan, in July 1993. In March 1994, he was elected a GM vice president. From May 1996 through December 2000, Stephens was GM vice president and group director of engineering operations for the GM Truck Group. He was appointed vice president of vehicle integration in January 2001 and held this position prior to being named group vice president for GM Powertrain July 1, 2001. 

On January 1, 2007, Stephens was appointed GM's Global Process Leader for Quality. He became Group Vice President for Global Powertrain in March 2007.  In 1971, Stephens received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He serves on the board of directors for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, and he is also a member of the Detroit Science Centre board of trustees and serves on the University of Michigan National Advisory Council.  In February 2007, Stephens was elected as a new member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), for his leadership role in the development of automotive powertrains with improved performance, fuel efficiency and lower emissions.