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Busy Weeks for GM's On-Schedule Volt
Dec 18, 2009 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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There's lots of recent news for GM -- and it's essentially all good. When the company announced the Volt in January 2007, it said it expected to have the car in mass production by fall 2010. Since then, it has been remarkably open in showing the development process. And in the face of skepticism from many directions, the Volt team still expects to meet that original schedule -- now pegged as November 2010. Below are the latest previews, media reports, production plans, and a review of battery cost controversies.

VOLT TEAM SHOWS WORK IN PROGRESS: The old GM would never have wheeled out a car for media ride-and-drives with a disclaimer about the car's rough spots, accompanied by engineering team assurances that it could fix them before launch. Usually-cynical, seasoned auto reviewers responded well to this "warts and all" approach. Before driving the Volt, Edmunds Green Car Advisor John O'Dell called it "the most publicly visible new car development project in the history of automobile development"­greencaradvisor/­2009/­11/­start-getting-amped---our-chevy-volt-behind-the-wheel-report-is-on-its-way.html . After, he said "it was a thrill to drive a vehicle loaded with potentially game-changing technology," and concluded, "Verdict: a solid car with loads of promise from a technology that undoubtedly will help bring clean electric driving into the mainstream"­greencaradvisor/­2009/­11/­2011-chevrolet-volt-test-drive-informative-but-far-too-short.html . See Edmunds' simple technical summary and pointers to other reports at­greencaradvisor/­2009/­11/­chevy-volt-technical-updates-from-chief-engineer-andrew-farah.html .

Prize-winning LA Times columnist Dan Neil (who back in 2005 in LAT Magazine cover story "Running on Empty," wrote the first test-drive review of a Prius conversion) poetically said, "even in this rough prototype, the Volt vibe is spacious, comfortable and lively. The whole car seems lit from within by the ambitions of its builders." Lindsay Brooke in the NY Times heard Vehicle Line Director Tony Posawatz describe how they have nine months to fine-tune the software to smooth out intermittent engine revving when recharging a low battery­2009/­11/­22/­automobiles/­autoreviews/­22-chevy-volt.html . And Volt engineers let the Detroit Free Press's Mark Phelan tag along as they identified and solved problems within 24 hours­article/­20091119/­COL14/­911190474/­1322/ .

GM ANNOUNCES INITIAL VOLT PRODUCTION VOLUMES: GM Vice President Bob Lutz at the LA Auto Show said production levels would be 4-5,000 in opening months with a first-year total of 8-10,000, followed by a ramp-up to 50-60,000/year­2009/­12/­03/­bob-lutz-announces-chevy-volt-production-volume-plan/ . (We hope the response will be so great that GM will raise production levels steadily!)

BOARD TRIES TO "MAKE THEM AN OFFER THEY CAN'T REFUSE:" Detroit turns out not to be Godfather country: engineers know that sometimes more people or resources slows things down. The NY Times cited anonymous reports that GM's Board of Directors asked if $100 million would enable the Volt team to get the car out the door before November 2010. The response from Jon Lauckner, Global Product Planning VP: early in the program, the timing had been advanced; at this point, more money wouldn't move up the timetable, but could get more vehicles to consumers to test drive before high-volume manufacturing begins­2009/­12/­08/­business/­08auto.html .

CALIFORNIA WILL GET FIRST VOLTS: At the LA Auto Show, Bob Lutz said that the first production Volts will come to California in late 2010­content/­media/­us/­en/­news/­news_detail.html/­content/­Pages/­news/­us/­en/­2009/­Dec/­1202_GM_Volt_Sales . Outgoing Chevy chief Brent Dewar said, "It is natural that California is the lead market for Volt. Not only is it the largest automotive market, Californians are known to be leaders in adopting groundbreaking new technologies." Though CalCars is globally-focused, we're still home-town boosters. And we agree that the receptivity and feedback from savvy business, technical and EV audiences will be very helpful -- so we agree this is a wise strategy! Announcements of other states will follow­2009/­12/­02/­california-will-be-first-state-to-get-the-chevy-volt/ .

MICHIGAN GETS $700M IN VOLT-RELATED INVESTMENTS: GM announced it will invest $336M in the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center for the Volt. Edmunds reports the source of components: tooling from Grand Blanc, lithium-ion batteries from GM's Brownstown Township battery pack manufacturing facility, camshafts and connecting rods from Bay City, and stampings and the Volt's 1.4-liter engine-generator from Flint­greencaradvisor/­2009/­12/­gm-to-invest-336-million-in-detroit-hamtramck-plant-to-build-chevrolet-volt-er-ev.html .

OPEL AMPERA, EUROPEAN VOLT, ALSO ON TRACK: The left-hand drive diesel vehicle will reach the market in late 2011; right-hand drive Vauxhalls for Britain will follow in 2012­greencaradvisor/­2009/­12/­opel-ampera---europes-chevy-volt---is-on-track-for-2011-production-gm-exec-says.html .

GM BATTERY COSTS REBUT DOWNBEAT ASSUMPTIONS: The latest flawed study of PHEVs, this time from the U.S. National Research Council, projects a PHEV-40 battery pack costing $14,000, resulting in the vehicle costing $18,000 more than its equivalent non-hybrid. The report says if battery technology changes incrementally, this cost will decline only one-third by 2020; even if there are some "battery breakthroughs," they won't show up in vehicles until 2030. See a report at­2009/­12/­nrc-phev-20091215.html and a summary at­catalog.php?record_id=12826 .

When asked about battery cost for its 40-mile pack, GM hasn't been specific but has said it's well below these estimates, and heading much lower in its second generation in a few years. And of course, GM and other carmakers are getting advanced battery designs that didn't exist a few years ago into production volumes for cars in years, not decades.

CALCARS' RON GREMBAN EXPLAINS BATTERY PRICING: Plug-in vehicle battery prices are often quoted out of context. Even if accurate, such figures can be a factor of 2-3 off from actual battery pack costs to manufacturers, thereby mis-stating the economic viability of plug-in technology. It's most useful to focus cost of complete battery packs in high volumes, calculated per "useful-pack-kWh kilowatt-hour" (capacity actually used by the vehicle). For example, the cells in the Volt's pack have a nameplate total capacity of 16 kWh, but to ensure long battery life, the Volt actually uses only 8 kWh. Pack costs per nameplate capacity may run 3-4x the cost of individual cells, though over time this should decline to as little as 1.5x. Retail costs for small quantities of cells developed specifically for cars can't be used for calculations -- they will cost far more than the wholesale rates to carmakers.

The NRC report's figure of $14,000 for a Volt-like 8 useful-kWh pack yields $1,750 per useful-pack-kWh. GM's costs are closer to $1,000/useful-kWh for the first-generation Volt, and we've seen industry figures closer to $600/useful-pack-kWh for production packs for delivery in the next few years. The NRC report also says we can expect minimal cost declines from technology improvements and economies of scale because Li-ion batteries are already produced in great quantities for consumer products. But these are very different cells and packs. Those required for plug-in vehicles are just beginning production, with significant efficiency improvements already appearing, along with better-than-expected battery life. Consumer cells are currently selling in quantity for $150-250/kWh. Calculations with best assumptions1.5x $150 or conservative 4x $250 translate into $225-$1,000/useful-pack-kWh -- a far cry from the paper's $1,750/useful-pack-kWh estimates!

VOLT RESEARCH PROJECT: Following the launch, a $30M US Department of Energy real-world demonstration project will bring hundreds of Volts to Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and Sacramento Municipal Utility District and some of their customers. The Electric Power Research Institute and seven other utilities will also be involved. GM's Tony Posawatz discusses that project and the development benefits resulting from all Volts being able to send performance data back to the company through GM's unique OnStar telematic system at­2009/­12/­11/­gm-no-volts-to-consumers-prior-to-november-2010-doe-grant-is-to-study-500-to-5000-consumer-driven-volts/ .

MARKETING STRIDES AND MIS-STEPS: See and join GM's social media efforts at ,­Chevrolet ,­Chevrolet , and the Q&As at­pages/­open/­default/­future/­ . Recently, the company slipped up with a retro "song-and-dance" presented hourly at the LA Auto Show that was widely ridiculed for not matching up to the Volt's messaging. (In GM's defense, the song was originally aimed at middle-schoolers.) Catch up on that at or Youtube.

GM WORKS WITH NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND FOR EV SOUNDS: Though the dangers of too-quiet electric vehicles has been overblown (see CalCars-News Oct 17), it's still real, and there are easy solutions. The company plans to work for universal standards as well: see a GM posting and two-minute video demo at­index.php/­Blog/­stop-look-listen.html .

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