Flint: GM’s Big Plug-In Talk

It's an old Sinatra tune, but it gives me trouble: “Got my tweed pressed, got my best vest, all I need now is the girl.”

What does that mean? The guy in the song has nothing without the girl.

I have the same trouble with all the talk from General Motors about building the 100-miles-to-the-gallon plug-in electric hybrid Volt in 2010. Robert Lutz, the Vice Chairman, says there is an internal target for production by that year. Other GM people also have used that date, but Lutz is not afraid to stand up and say this for attribution. The problem, says Lutz and others from GM, is that they do not have the batteries yet.

All they need is the batteries? Without the batteries, there is nothing. And GM's battery people, who held a briefing Monday, say lots of work remains to be done before the battery systems are ready for production. Lots. After listening to that briefing, I would not expect mass production in three years.


So how can the other side of the company talk of building such a vehicle if you do not have the batteries? Mind you, I think Robert Lutz is the best, the heart of the GM recovery. He has done wonders, and more vehicles reflecting his terrific influence are on the way. Lutz is honest, too, and he showed some doubts about the electric car: “I would say there is still a ten-percent chance this will fail.” MORE--

Cheap promises

I think that no one at GM should say anything that sounds like a promise — even with a disclaimer — when it comes to miraculous fuel-saving vehicles. The company has talked too much through the years. Talk is cheap.

Over the years, I remember too many press events for GM engine miracles that did not happen or have yet to happen. Such promises include a new steam engine, the rotary motor, a revival of the Sterling engine (invented by an English clergyman in the 19th century and a GM research favorite a few decades ago), the hydrogen fuel-cell engine, and “dual-mode” hybrid systems for trucks which are promised for later this year.


Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver magazine remembers a GM president promising an electric car in production by 1980 (I remember a Ford vice chairman promising one, too). Bedard says that GM's promises are like bouncing rubber checks, and we should not trust folks that pass out bouncing checks.

“What is it about battery-powered cars that make dreamers, and the press, and dreamers in the press, go full-court cuckoo for them?” Bedard writes.


Roger Smith, Robert Stempel, and Jack Smith — all one-time GM chief executives — supported the electric car. Now the current boss, Rick Wagoner, is touting the electric plug-in hybrid, and Bob Lutz seems all for it, too.

Lutz and everyone else at GM should stay away from promising production dates to the press if there is a reasonable probability that the company will not be able to make the deadline. Toyota knows more about exotic batteries that any other automaker in the world. They are working on plug-ins, too. Toyota told me it is going to be a good while before we see the system work. I believe Toyota.

So if GM does not get electric car production in 2010, you can bet there will be a public television documentary titled, Who Killed the Plug-In Car, blaming GM. There will be a book, Unplugged at Any Speed, blaming GM for deliberately sabotaging man's last hope to end our addiction to oil, and a movie, A Really Inconvenient Truth, featuring an animated polar bear who sings “It's too darn hot,” and blames GM's failure as a victory for global warming. Do not forget the million blogs condemning GM, too. MORE--

An inside re-Volt

GM has showed an attractive plug-in electric prototype called the Chevy Volt, and it is betting that engineers can develop a battery pack of lithium-ion batteries that can run the car for 40 miles or so and last 100,000 miles and ten years. The Volt also has a small gasoline engine, but its power does not go to the wheels. Instead the engine runs a generator to create electric power when the batteries run down, extending the vehicle's driving range. Drivers could recharge the batteries at night at home, by plugging in the car.

The trouble is that such lithium-ion battery packs for cars do not exist. Today's hybrids use nickel-metal hydride batteries and they are not good enough for this plug-in concept. The Toyota Prius, the most popular of all hybrids, can run under electric power alone, but only for short distances on its nickel-metal hydride batteries. The Prius may start under electric power, but it quickly switches over to a small gasoline engine that powers the wheels most of the time. The battery pack also pushes some extra power to the wheels when needed.

Lithium-ion batteries are common. Manufacturers make millions of them every year, and they power relatively small devices like laptop computers, cell phones, portable music players, and power tools. These batteries have problems with heat buildup, among other things. Propelling 3000 pounds for 40 miles at 65 miles per hour is not the same as powering up a Dell. Some day we may have lithium ion or other exotic battery packs for cars, but it could take many more years to iron out the technical bugs and manufacture such batteries in quantity.

That is why it is dangerous to toss out dates like 2010 for this plug-in electric hybrid.

Related Articles


Calif. Getting First Plug-In Hybrids by Bengt Halvorson (3/8/2007)
Study vehicles will help figure out durability, usability.


GM Says Coming Back in Hybrids by TCC Team (1/14/2007)
Toyota and Honda haven’t won the game, co. says.


2007 Chevrolet Volt Concept by TCC Team (1/7/2007)
GM gets charged up by electric propulsion.


GM Charged Up Over Electrics? by TCC Team (1/7/2007)
Will GM commit half a billion to Volt?

Is GM Putting Too Much on Batteries?
Automakers-Toyota, too-head to Washington , but what’s the takeaway?

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