Leading The Charge

When he enrolled in Minnesota State Mankato’s Department of Automotive and Manufacturing Engineering Technology in the 1990s, Josh Tavel never dreamed one day he’d help steer an electric vehicle (EV) revolution.

“No way,” said Tavel, General Motors’ chief engineer for EVs, “because at the time they were slow and just for science projects.”

Times have changed. Tavel, a self-described “gearhead,” now sits in the driver’s seat of a dramatic transformation in auto- motive engineering. Nearly 25 years after he graduated from the University, Tavel spoke to TODAY magazine while be- hind the wheel of GMC’s 1,000-horsepower Hummer EV, the world’s first all-electric supertruck, a project he’s spearheading. When GM wanted to show the world that EVs are built to last, an electrified Hummer fit the bill. GM is also pledging to offer dozens of electric-powered cars by 2025, equating to about 40 percent of the company’s U.S. fleet. The Hummer can even move diagonally when set in CrabWalk mode.

Josh Tavel with the Bolt, winner of the 2017 Motor Trend Car of the Year.

“This is a science project for gearheads,” Tavel said of the Hummer. “It’s insane, and beyond anything I could’ve imagined.” Tavel’s team is charged with an ambitious goal, and they’re leaning into the task ahead.

“We leave our meetings going, ‘Go change the world,’ and that’s been our mission,” he said.

Bruce Jones, a longtime University professor and former AMET department chair, recognized the leadership attributes in his student, even though the department didn’t work with EVs until after Tavel graduated. The kid was simply born to work with cars.

“You could definitely tell Josh was a leader,” Jones said. “He’s a focused individual, and was a student that really liked to learn. … I’m really proud of him.”

Tavel moved eight times by the time he entered eighth grade. He followed his own wanderlust path after college, pursuing engineering jobs in Brazil, Korea and Janesville, Wisconsin. He’s now settled into a dream job at General Motors’ Michigan headquarters with a commitment toward improving emissions and safety. Not even working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic slowed GM’s progress.

“It’s been a cool journey,” Tavel said. “It’s a full-court press on EVs. We’re committed to this, our ‘zero-zero-zero future.’ That’s not just some tag line. Every decision we make is about how to make zero emissions and zero crashes. That’s the road we’re heading down.”

All About Cars

Tavel attended Minnesota State after graduating from Eden Prairie High School. By then, automobiles were already his life’s passion; Tavel’s parents remember their 3-year old son sleeping under the family Trans Am. The University’s renowned AMET program seemed right up his alley.

“I chose Mankato because of the (program),” he said. “I was always a racer, a car guy. It was all about cars.”

During his time at the University, Tavel led the first group of students to participate in the prestigious Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) program. Tavel was the team’s principal technician, helping to build a single-seat prototype race car to compete in a national competition.

“You could see the leadership ability right there,” Jones said. “Organized, strong technically, but also from the leadership standpoint, too.”

Tavel remembers many late nights on campus working alongside his peers, staving off sleep to build the prototype. The stakes were high, but the payoff and prestige even great- er: Tavel now says he’ll hire anyone on the spot who’s competed in the Formula SAE.

“We’d sleep in the lab. I remember the shop teacher came in and we’d be asleep on the shop bench,” he said. “It’s a big-deal competition.”

Tavel credits the AMET program with setting him on the road to success, starting with his first post-college job (through Jones’ recommendation) at an assembly plant in Janesville.

“You’ve got to work your butt off, but the bottom line is (Minnesota State Mankato) set me up to be capable in any circumstances,” Tavel said. “(The University) put me in a great spot to be successful right out of the chute.”

The program’s diversity is one of its strongest attributes, Tavel said. The automotive world is filled with specialized technicians. At Minnesota State Mankato, students learn all aspects of a vehicle, which benefited Tavel as his engineering career progressed.

“We got to know the whole vehicle – how to fix it, how to design,” he said. “I was able to have this foundation that the AMET program built for me. They connected the real world with the mathematical world and the physics world, and al- lowed me to transcend any place I needed to be.”

After college, Tavel thought he’d worked as a race car engineer, and briefly joined a Trans Am team before deciding the chaotic “traveling circus” life of the race car circuit wasn’t for him. He moved around with his wife and fellow University alum, Meggan. Tavel designed steering systems in Michigan and oversaw an engineering group in Brazil before returning to the state, where he’s been the chief on every GM electrified program since debuting the Chevy Bolt in 2016. His Minnesota State Mankato education served him well each step of the way.

“I’m super happy. AMET makes you an incredibly well-round- ed person,” he said. “The spectrum of people who come out of that program is pretty cool, and I had every opportunity to apply real-world knowledge.”

Driving the Message

Tavel is well aware of the concerns from EV skeptics. There aren’t enough charging stations. They’re too costly. How will EVs work in cold climates like Minnesota? Reality tells a more nuanced story, Tavel said.

“The problem we’re solving—and GM is doing it—is how to connect cities,” he said.

Ninety-five percent of car trips are less than 40 miles. Tavel’s Chevy Bolt EV boasts a range of about 240 miles, and he can easily go a week without a charge. GM’s upcoming line of electric trucks will feature more than 400 miles of range. By 2025, GM’s Ultium battery packs are projected to cost 60 percent less than today’s pack, with twice the energy density.

“How often do you go over 400 miles? For most of us, not often,” he said. “For the vast majority of people, if you plug in at home, you’re good.”

Tavel, who vacations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with his wife, children and dogs, says the charging time—about 100 miles in 10 minutes—is hardly an inconvenience.

“God help me if we have a stop shorter than 10 minutes. I can’t get the kids out of the car that fast,” he said, laughing. “That’s fine, it’s not going to add much time to a trip.”

The Hummer EV was developed over 26 months and can speed from zero to 60 mph in about three seconds.