“We know we have a perception problem, at GM,” admits Bob Boniface, the former Chrysler stylist who is not overseeing design of the 2010 Chevrolet Volt. Where environmentally-conscious consumers look at Toyota and see “Prius.” They look at GM and see “Hummer,” says Boniface, adding that this perception gap
is something we have to fix.”
There are plenty of skeptics who wonder whether Volt is simply smoke and mirrors, a high-minded project designed to turn around GM’s image, then fade away. And in years past, these doubters might have been right. Over the years, the automaker has showcased a lot of grand projects that failed to reach production. Others have hit market looking little like the original concept – witness the abortive Pontiac Aztek.
But all signs indicate GM is as serious as a heart attack, as the old line goes, about Volt. It has assigned hundreds of designers and engineers to the project. Operations are spread out across the sprawling Tech Center, in the Detroit suburb of Warren, with additional work being done in facilities as far afield as the GM Proving Grounds, in Wixom, Michigan, and Mainz-Kastel, Germany.
The biggest challenge is coming up with a lithium-ion battery that is robust enough to endure the conditions the typical car will face over its lifecycle, wet, bone-dry, burning hot and freezing cold. LIon technology normally likes “the same conditions we humans do,” notes program czar Tony Posawatz, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with modest humidity.
As yesterday’s report noted, two battery suppliers have been brought onboard, CPI and A123. The latter vendor’s lithium-ion technology is already in widespread use in handheld tools, and according to Posawatz, is so benign that you can drive a nail into one of the cells and it will barely spark. Compared that to some of the other LIon technology on the market, which is so volatile the Federal Aviation Administration has limited the number of batteries you can now bring aboard an airplane.
While GM is still in the midst of a crash, two-year program to ensure CPI and A123 batteries will work, the automaker was confident enough, early on, to approve the Volt for production. If the U.S. automaker can hold to schedule, it will get as much as a year or more of a jump on its arch-rival Toyota, which is working fast on a plug-in version of the popular Prius hybrid.
There’s no question Prius has been a game-changer, proving that there really is a market for hybrid-electric vehicles, despite a gap between projected and real-world fuel savings. Prius is today the world’s most popular HEV, and clearly an image boost for Toyota, more than offsetting any hit it might take for its concurrent push into the large pickup and SUV markets.
But while Prius may save gasoline, Volt could obviate the need to fill up more than every few months. GM’s target is to deliver 40 miles of battery-only range, with speeds up to a software-limited 100 mph and 0-60 times of around 8.5 seconds.
During an appearance at the Detroit Auto Show, last January, Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe indicated there are still some serious details to work out about the plug-in version of Prius. Performance and top speed will be lower than Chevy’s, while range will likely be about half of Volt’s, according to Toyota sources.
Part of the problem is that Toyota bet its marbles on the wrong battery technology, according to a wide range of industry insiders. “Not all lithium technology is the same,” explains Andy Farah, Volt’s chief engineer. A variety of different chemistries are being tested. Some offer extremely low volatility, but don’t deliver much power. Toyota and its battery partner, Panasonic, bet on a “cobalt-doped” version of lithium that is high-power, but also extremely sensitive to the slightest manufacturing flaw – too sensitive, it turns out for today’s mass production methods. So it was nearly back to ground zero, TheCarConnection.com has learned, which means Toyota is suddenly in the unhappy position of chasing GM.
Of course, that first-mover advantage could vanish in a hurry, both Posawatz and Farah agree, if GM doesn’t get Volt right, and right from the start. Quality problems, recalls, range shortfalls, all could turn this public image windfall into a PR nightmare.
Even if GM gets it right, the question is how long it will be able to maintain its lead. True, Toyota makes mistakes, but not often, and not for long, concedes a senior GM executive, asking not to be quoted by name.
An aborted launch would give Toyota a chance to debut its Prius plug-in, and other competitors are on the way. Manufacturers from Mercedes-Benz to Hyundai are working with lithium-ion technology, and many of them are working on plug-ins of their own.
So, each day, as work begins anew on the Volt project, the GM team knows it has just one shot at getting this one right.