Jan 8, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Two of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable people write about the
Volt and its implications. Key points from our perspective:
Makower: (Unofficially, I'm told that GM is racing to get it out by
the end of the decade.)
Bullis: GM representatives say that they have already seen
lithium-ion cells that have the performance required for both plug-in
and series-hybrid applications.
You can view and add comment at both websites.
Is GM Reviving the Electric Car?
Two Steps Forward -- by Joel Makower
In November, General Motors chairman Rick Wagoner made a rather provocative statement. In a speech to kick off the Los Angeles Auto Show, he said, "At GM, we believe tomorrow's automobiles must be flexible enough to accommodate many different energy sources. And a key part of that flexibility will be enabled by the development of electrically driven cars."
Was GM "unkilling" the electric car?
That seems to be the case. This weekend, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where this is being written, GM (which is a client of the sustainability strategy firm GreenOrder, with which I am affiliated) unveiled what might be called "EV2": E-Flex, a platform of plug-in electric vehicles that are able to recharge via a small, efficient engine that can burn anything from gasoline to biofuels to hydrogen.
The first model in the E-Flex series, the Chevy Volt (pictured here), works something like this: You can drive it in pure electric mode for about 40 miles, after which it needs to be recharged, via a standard 110-volt outlet. So, if your commute is typical -- 78% of U.S. households drive under 40 miles a day, according to GM -- you'll rarely have to rely on additional fuel. However, if you drive more than 40 miles between charges, the supplementary engine kicks in. Unlike, say, a Prius, in which the engine sends power directly to the wheels, the Volt's engine is used only to recharge the battery. That extends the range of the Volt to about 640 miles, giving the car the equivalent of about 50 miles per gallon of gasoline (or many times that, if you're using E85 or any other non-gasoline fuel).
That all sounds pretty good, you're likely thinking. So, when can you buy a Chevy Volt? Well, you can't. You see, it's just a concept car.
Like many of the coolest cars on display at the COBO Center here in Detroit, the Volt is not yet for sale. And GM isn't officially saying when you'll be able to find a Volt in your local Chevy showroom. (Unofficially, I'm told that GM is racing to get it out by the end of the decade.)
The barrier is the battery: there is none yet available that meets the Volt's technical requirements. That's changing, albeit slowly. More than a score of companies are developing batteries for electric vehicles. Just last week, GM announced that it awarded contracts to two suppliers to design and test lithium-ion batteries for use in the Saturn Vue Green Line plug-in hybrid SUV that is under development.
(Battery technology turns out to be incredibly complex, as evidenced by the explanation I received from my colleague Michael Millikin, who runs Green Car Congress. "The battery systems for the first production plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles depend on the interrelationship of a number of factors," he began, "but basically boil down to cell optimization for a given category of application and battery system design for the application." I admit to getting lost after that. You are encouraged to visit his fine site for more on the topic.)
Could GM release an interim version of the Volt before it had the perfect battery? Some would like to see that. For example, Felix Kramer of CalCars.org, who is readying a campaign to put 1,000 plug-in hybrids on California roads (not unlike GM's Project Driveway, which will be putting 100 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road starting later this year). Kramer says interim demonstrations can drive innovation and refine plug-in vehicles as well as "show America and the world what's possible now."
For their part, the folks at GM -- who, only a year or so ago were fairly despondent about the prospects of ever establishing GM as a player in the green arena -- are practically giddy about the Volt announcement, and the resulting positive media coverage. They view E-Flex and the Volt as a potential turnaround technology for the company, which until relatively recently hadn't had many good, green stories to tell.
"We wanted to show our overall commitment to environmental excellence," Beth Lowery, GM's vice president for environment and energy, told me after the Volt event. "We've been working on it for decades, but nothing was showing through. I think this really broke through. This allows people to take us seriously."
But it's not just GM singing its own praises. At the Volt launch, l ran into Chris Paine, producer of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? During the Volt launch event, I couldn't help but note Paine's rapt attention and enthusiastic applause. I caught up with him afterwards to get his reaction and he was positively ecstatic. "I think it's fantastic," he responded. "This is better than any award I could ever get as a filmmaker."
Paine says he's currently working on a sequel to his movie, about who's reviving the electric car. This time, I'm guessing, GM could be the hero, not the goat.
Technology Review, Published by MIT
GM's New Electric Vehicle
The automaker tries again, announcing an electric-drive system that
can be paired with gasoline generators or fuel cells.
By Kevin Bullis
CAPTION Schematics of GM's Chevrolet Volt concept car, which was unveiled today at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit. The battery pack along the center of the vehicle stores enough energy to give the car an all-electric range of 40 miles. Once this limit is reached, a gasoline engine kicks on to generate electricity, recharging the battery and allowing a total range of 640 miles.
Recently, General Motors (GM) has faced criticism for shutting down production of its EV-1 electric vehicle. Yesterday at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit, it unveiled the EV-1's successor, an electric-motor-driven concept car called the Chevrolet Volt. It's the first example of a new "E-Flex" vehicle platform that the company is moving toward production.
The concept car runs off electricity from the grid, stored on board in a battery, for the first 40 miles of a drive. For longer trips, a small gasoline-powered generator kicks on to recharge the battery pack, allowing a total range of 640 miles. In between trips, the battery can be recharged in six and a half hours at an ordinary wall outlet. For longer trips, the generator can provide power at the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon.
GM representatives say their reason for including the gasoline generator is to overcome one of the biggest limitations of the earlier electric vehicle: the short range. The original EV-1 had a range of only about 90 miles, and it required an eight-hour recharge at a dedicated 220-volt electrical outlet. The Volt uses lithium-ion batteries that take up one-third of the space of the EV-1's original lead-acid battery pack, while providing the same total energy storage.
The new vehicle is an example of what's known as a series hybrid, another in a growing type of hybrid-vehicle variant. In conventional hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, the car can be propelled by a gasoline engine, a battery-powered motor, or both. In a series hybrid, the gasoline engine has no direct contact with the wheels. It serves only to recharge the batteries. One of the major advantages of such a system is that any source of electricity can be used to charge the battery. This includes electricity from a wall outlet, but also electricity generated on board by a gasoline-, ethanol-, or diesel-powered generator. Because these generators can run at a constant speed, they are more efficient than an engine that has to ramp up and down to meet demand.
GM is developing a combination electric motor, alternator-like generator, and battery pack that can be used with various power sources. For example, an engine that runs on diesel might be preferred in Europe. An engine that runs on ethanol might be favored in Brazil. In a hydrogen fuel-cell version, the battery pack would be smaller and primarily used to provide a boost of power and to recapture energy lost from braking.
Last year at the Los Angeles Auto Show, GM announced work on a plug-in hybrid. (See "GM's Plug-in Hybrid.") As with the Volt, the plug-in hybrid can recharge from a wall socket. But the electric motor will not be the sole source of propulsion: an internal combustion engine could provide bursts of acceleration or power for climbing hills. The plug-in hybrid would not switch among the different sources of energy as easily as the series-hybrid system could.
For both the plug-in and series hybrids, GM says the timeline for commercializing the vehicles will depend on the development of the battery systems. But such systems may not be far off. GM representatives say that they have already seen lithium-ion cells that have the performance required for both plug-in and series-hybrid applications. What remains to be done is to combine these cells into large, complex battery packs and make sure they work well together in an actual vehicle. Last week, GM announced that it has a contract with two sets of companies for building lithium-ion-based battery packs and control systems for plug-in hybrids.