Will General Motors save the electric vehicle?
The automaker took plenty of lumps when it decided to kill off its quirky little EV1 battery car, a decade ago, most recently in the art house documentary, Who Killed the Electric Vehicle. That’s just one of the reasons why, over the years, GM has run the wrath of green-minded motorists.
And it’s one reason why the giant automaker has chosen to make the Chevrolet Volt its centerpiece at the upcomingDetroitauto show. At first glance, the Chevy prototype doesn’t look nearly as radical as last year’s hydrogen-powered Sequel. But the Volt could nonetheless lead to a serious revolution in environmentally-friendly transportation.
“We believe very deeply in the principle of energy diversity,” declared GM’s septuagenarian car czar, Bob Lutz, during a recent sneak peek provided TheCarConnection.com and a handful of other automotive journalists. While the company remains committed to the long-term use of hydrogen power, Lutz insisted, in the short-term “There is not going to be a single solution” to the environmental problems posed by the automobile.
But GM is betting that something like the Volt could play a major role. The prototype is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. It’s designed to deliver the advantages of both a battery car and a conventional, gasoline-powered vehicle.
If that sounds a lot like a conventional hybrid, it is – sort of. Hybrids are designed to recapture energy normally lost during braking or coasting, and store it, in the form of electricity, in a small battery pack. When accelerating, the vehicle uses that energy to power one or more electric motors, improving performance and reducing fuel consumption. So-called “full” hybrids, like the popular Toyota Prius, can even run on battery power alone, albeit for short distances and at low speeds.
The new E-Flex System in Volt turns to energy-dense lithium-ion batteries, rather than the nickel-metal hydride cells used in the Prius and other hybrids. And the Chevy has a significantly larger battery pack, which you could charge up, as the term, plug-in, implies, by connecting it to any common electric socket. Fully charged, the Volt stores enough energy to run about 40 miles – at normal driving speeds.
Compared to latter versions of the old EV1, which could run for more than 100 miles between charges, that might seem a step backwards. But there’s a big difference: like the Prius, or the new Saturn Aura Green Line hybrids, the Volt also has an internal combustion engine onboard. And that means it keeps running, even when the batteries are drained down.
The E-Flex System takes another twist from existing hybrid technology. The Prius, Aura, and other existing hybrids are what’s known in engineering circles as parallel hybrids. In other words, the gasoline and electric systems are both connected directly – in parallel – to the driven wheels. The Volt is a serial hybrid. Its 1.0-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged internal combustion engine cannot, by itself, turn the wheels. It serves only as an electric generator, firing up when the LiIon battery pack drops below a 30 percent charge, and shutting off, automatically, when the charge tops 80 percent.
Under normal driving conditions, GM estimates the Volt would get about 640 miles range, starting out with a full charge and 12 gallons of gasoline. That would translate into roughly 53 miles per gallon for the Prius-sized four-seater.