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.
Justifying the numbers
But then again, the Volt isn’t really designed for long-distance driving, stressed GM’s Tony Posawatz. It’s intended for short and mid-distance urban commuting, explained the project’s Vehicle Line Director. GM planners point to research showing that a full half of allU.S.households have commutes of less than 30 miles a day. That rises to 78 percent when you include those traveling up to 40 miles.
So, “The majority of customers may have little or no reason to stop by a filling station” for extended periods of time, added Posawatz.
If that proved accurate, fuel savings could run upwards of 500 gallons of gas annually, even for those whose commutes extend beyond the Volt’s battery range, if you buy the GM numbers.
Would it be economically justified? As with today’s hybrids, potential buyers would face a stiff price premium to cover the cost of all that added hardware. That’s roughly $2000 or more for current hybrids. Tinkerers developing their own prototype plug-ins have had to cough up $12,000 or more to convert the existing Prius platform.
GM is betting it can drive down the price penalty, but it won’t be easy. Indeed, while GM Vice Chairman Lutz said he hopes to put the Volt into production – and has given a cautious go-ahead to the vehicle development program – but there’s a potentially serious wrinkle.
Sony recently recalled a large batch of LiIon batteries because they could potentially short out and cause fires in laptop computers. Yet that’s a downright friendly operating environment compared to what batteries would face in an automobile.
“That’s the real problem,” warned Jim Hall, chief product analyst with the consulting firm, AutoPacific, Inc. “Until they can get a good battery, there’s not going to be a plug-in.”
Dr. David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, agrees the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time, but he believes, “there are a lot of breakthroughs on the way, and I think that we’ll soon have battery technology capable of living in the automotive environment.”
Other manufacturers cautiously agree. Ford insiders tell TheCarConnection.com they’re moving forward with a plug-in program, as isToyota, generally considered the leader in hybrid technology.
Nissan recently announced a plug-in hybrid development program. Since Li-Ion technology is indeed the Achilles Heel of the plug-in hybrid, the Japanese automaker may “establish a new company which will handle sales and probably the manufacturing of the battery,” said Mitsuhiko “Mike” Yamashita, Nissan’s Executive Vice President for Research and Development.
If new battery technology does provide the kick a plug-in needs, what about the battery car? At press time, there were rumors suggesting GM might also show off a next-generation electric vehicle atDetroit’s North American International Auto Show.
Meanwhile, a smallCaliforniastart-up, Tesla Motors, plans to begin production, late this year, of a battery-powered roadster that would deliver the performance of a Porsche while still yielding a range of up to 250 miles.
So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the EV’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.
2007 Detroit Auto Show Preview by TCC Team (12/21/2006)
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KPMG: Hybrids, Mergers Will Rule Industry by TCC Team (1/4/2007)
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Lutz Blasts Fuel-Econ Study by Joseph Szczesny (12/26/2006)
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Review: Who Killed the Electric Car? by Bengt Halvorson (8/7/2006)
Film about death of the EV1 sparks big-screen debate.