The Volt, GM says, is no ordinary hybrid. It's an extended-range electric vehicle, one that uses a small gasoline-fueled (or ethanol-fueled) engine to support its array of lithium-ion batteries. Able to drive 40 miles on battery power alone, the Volt's backup engine relieves the "range anxiety" that shoppers interested in electric cars raise as their chief objection, GM says.
"There's no such thing as a five-gallon can of electricity," joked GM's Bob Lutz, the highly quotable vice chairman of the company. "Range anxiety is real," he adds, and the hesitation among drivers is the prime reason GM decided to develop the Volt as a hybrid vehicle, not as a pure electric vehicle, which is "what i wanted the Volt to be," he says. With a traditional electric vehicle, "you're never quite sure" about how much drivable range you'll have left in an electric car's battery.
Lutz also says GM steered clear of a conventional hybrid powertrain for the Volt for a pragmatic reason: "you are not going to get extreme mileage figures with a hybrid," he explained to reporters convened in Detroit for the reveal of the Volt, which GM says will enter production late in 2010. In past announcements, GM has said the Volt's unique serial-hybrid powertrain could produce mileage figures of up to 150 mpg, an impressive number in a hybrid scene dominated thus far by the 45-mpg Toyota Prius.
That mileage number is no trick--instead it's a clever, technically challenging use of hybrid pieces in a new way. The Volt's 220 lithium-ion batteries and electric motors are the only power source that turns its wheels. The small internal-combustion engine under the hood is used only to generate power to supply the batteries when they're drained in everyday use. All other hybrids rely on their gas engines at some point to drive the wheels directly.
The Volt can be driven without gasoline whatsoever. While it has the backup engine, it also has a plug-in mode that allows owners to recharge its batteries via a common household outlet. In three hours, a 240-volt plug can top off the batteries; a 110-volt plug takes about eight hours. GM estimates the power cost for a day's drive in the Volt, in electric-only use for 40 miles, is about 80 cents a day. And that everyday use is the Volt's mission. GM says it has designed the four-seat sedan's powertrain to accommodate drivers with 40 miles of electric-only power, an amount that covers 80 percent of most daily commuting.
While the world's largest automaker has big plans for the Volt, there are some small and major hurdles in the way. The small hurdles are technical details to be proven out in the next two years, as the Volt heads for a production date of late 2010. The largest hurdle is how to bring the car to market affordably. GM is hoping to revive tax credits and other incentives for buyers of the Volt that could take a major slice off its base price. Last year, GM floated a possible price target of less than $40,000 for the Volt. "We would be looking for $7,500 incentive for the consumer," Lutz said today, to "bring the list price down to an affordable level for the consumer."
It's still two years away in the best-case scenario, but with the Volt, GM envisions a slow but steady transformation in its fleet as the new vehicle gains momentum. Lutz estimates the company could put 10,000 cars on the road in 2010--"if i were an oil company I wouldn't exactly be quaking in my boots just yet"--but GM is ready to spread the Volt's powertrain technology across its lineup around the world, even across its brands.
Even Cadillac could one day receive a version of the Volt's gas-electric drivetrain. It's fitting, since the Volt will be built alongside Cadillacs in Hamtramck, Michigan--the heart of a domestic auto industry in financial straits and looking for a new century of progress and profit.