Awaiting the Volt

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I don’t think people realize how interlocking the process is and how many tradeoffs are necessary. Designing a great car is about fulfilling cost, safety, manufacturing, and space and comfort objectives … a whole host of requirements.” –Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors, from a speech in 2003 on the intrinsic challenges of designing new cars

At long last, we’re going to see General Motor’s unique hybrid car – the Chevrolet Volt – roll out onto the streets as part of demonstration project in several states (including California) early next year, with full-scale production supposedly to follow in late 2010.

I think this is a hugely important step in changing the way we in the U.S. manage our transportation needs, because the Volt represents a big shift in “hybrid” vehicle thinking. Instead of a battery system and electric generator being added as a parallel propulsion system alongside the standard internal combustion engine we are know so well, the Volt totally flips it around, as it’s an electric car with a small motor used only as a backup system.

On top of that, the Volt also offers “plug in” recharging using the household standard 110 volt/15 amp connection – meaning no fancy recharging technology is needed for the average consumer. You run a heavy duty extension cord out to the vehicle, plug it in overnight and after 6 hours, the batteries are set to go for the next day’s driving.

[Here’s a nice overview of the Volt courtesy of Cars.com. Though put together two years ago, when the Volt remained largely a concept vehicle, it provides nice crisp details on how the hybrid propulsion system functions, the vehicle’s available range, etc.]

GM noted that the Volt is designed to drive up to 40 miles on electricity without using gasoline or producing tailpipe emissions. When the Volt's lithium-ion battery runs low, an engine/generator seamlessly operates to extend the total driving range to more than 300 miles before refueling or stopping to recharge the battery, the automaker said.

For next year’s rollout, GM is partnering with three California utilities and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as part of an extended, real-world demonstration and research program to introduce customers to electric vehicles, advance vehicle electrification and establish vehicle charging programs to pave the way for consumers – largely funded with $30 million-plus grant from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act monies (more commonly known as “stimulus” funding) handed out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The GM said Volt production is scheduled to begin in late 2010, they still haven’t announced the vehicle’s pricing – sure to be a major hurdle with consumers. The brainchild of Bob Lutz, GM’s former vice chairman and one of the auto industry’s living legends, the Volt’s sticker price is rumored to range between $30,000 and $40,000 per copy – not even close to the $25,000 target Lutz hoped to achieve. How that cost is going to affect the Volt’s future (Will GM sell them at a loss to boost volumes? Will the states and federal government offer incentives to spur purchases?) still remains to be seen.

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[At right is the Volt -- the bottom photo is of the vehcile's concept stage; the one on top is the production model we'll see in 2010.]

Back to the demonstration project: The three California utilities participating in the demonstration project – Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and Sacramento Municipal Utility District – are going to receive 100 Volts from GM to use in their fleets for two years to generate real-world data; information GM is going to collect via its OnStar telematics technology that will be shared the DOE to help improve the “customer experience” with this new type of hybrid.

GM added that this demonstration project also calls for the installation of more than 500 charging stations for residential, business and public use – similar to other “vehicle electrification” projects now getting off the ground in several states. The key difference, though, is that those other projects are using electric-only vehicles – mainly Nissan’s new Leaf, which goes on sale in 2010 as well.

[Here’s a nice overview of the Leaf from NetworkWorld TV. Note that recharging the Leaf requires significantly more time than the Volt.]

The ultimate question is, of course, will the Volt – or any electric car, for that matter – really catch on with U.S. consumers? Will we really start to trade in our exclusively gasoline- and diesel-powered consumer-grade vehicles (sedans and light trucks) in favor of these limited-range models?

We’ve been here before, you know – poised on the cusp of a supposedly big changeover to electric vehicles and other alternative fuels, only to find consumers (that’s you and me, my friends) unwilling to take the plunge. Will the Volt, coupled to massive efforts to build electric-vehicle recharging infrastructure in cities across the U.S., convince us to step off the edge this time? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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