Monday, September 15, 2008
Updated. One of the highlights of the 2008 Olympic TV coverage was the General Motors commercial, with Brandi Carlile’s hauntingly beautiful music. But the commercial that caused a stir, also a masterpiece, was the one for the Chevy Volt. GM announced the Volt in 2007 at the Detroit Auto Show and it immediately captured the imagination of the trade press and the general public. Designed as a 4 passenger, 40 mile range electric vehicle with a range extending internal combustion engine, it overcomes the impracticalities of GM’s first production effort for an electric car, the EV-1. The EV-1 was a good faith effort by GM to fulfill the California Air Resources Board mandate to the 7 major auto manufacturers to sell 2% of their California cars as zero emission vehicles. Eventually 10% would have to conform. The EV-1 was a totally purpose built car, not a conversion of an existing model as all the other manufacturers did. Tooling was designed for high volume production including very expensive injection molding dies for the lightweight body panels. But the very concept of a battery operated ZEV is flawed, but this was and will be the only practical ZEV technology for many years. The fundamental problem with battery only cars is the “stranding factor.” If you run out of “fuel” in an electric, you can’t just call road service for a gallon of electrons to get you to the nearest filling station. You need a tow home or to a recharging station with a several hour wait to fill up. Try that with screaming kids in the back of the car, or worse yet, your mother-in-law. Where the EV-1 missed the mark, the Volt nails it. GM’s research shows an average daily commute of 35 to 40 miles. So it aimed at that mark for battery-only operation with a backup engine capable of operating the car without reduced performance. The engine drives the wheels through a generator via the battery pack. According to Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman of GM the Volt will cost about $1 for electricity for the first 40 miles, as opposed to $4 under engine power (40 mpg, $4 gas = 10¢/mile). The Volt will have better energy recovery from braking or coasting down hills than the current Prius because of a far larger battery capacity. Energy recovery is the most important reason for the Prius’s phenomenal mileage. Many of the Volt’s specs remain shrouded in mystery, but reading through statistics released by GM it appears the battery will be about 16 kWh of which only about 8 will be used in an effort to extend battery life. Recharging from a standard 120v/15a outlet will take about 5.5 hours, a comfortable overnight charge. GM’s biggest challenge and greatest risk is the battery pack. They are working with technology that is less than 5 years old, that they have been testing for less than a year. And they intend to have it on the market in 2 years (by the end of year 2010). And they plan to warrant them for 10 years/150,000 miles. They have expressed confidence in the longevity and durability of the packs, but costs are still a problem. The Volt’s original target price of $30,000 has risen to high 30s and now, “we’re not sure.” First year production is now pegged at 10,000 which should keep a tight market for the intended initial purchasers, technology buffs with fat wallets. The Volt is an exciting concept. It holds the promise of significantly reducing the use of petroleum products. It may not satisfy the “purists” who want only ZEVs, but until fuel cells can be made competitive and hydrogen produced from non-fossil fuel sources, it is a giant step in the right direction. Update Sept. 16: GM rolled out the production version of the Volt today to celebrate its 100th anniversary. See the article and video here. Actually looks better than the artist’s rendering. Everyone wanted the long hood look of the prototype shown at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. That just couldn’t be. Aero considerations require a highly sloped windshield and a narrower, longer body, especially for 70 mph highway speeds. GM did a great job considering the constraints they were operating under. Still I was hoping for the lightning bolt headlights in the rendering.