Calling an e-flex vehicle a “series hybrid” is not accurate, according to Larry Burns, Vice President of Research and Development for General Motors, and he’s right.
GM’s VP R&D and Planning
Photo: General Motors
In order to see why GM’s revolutionary new Chevy “Volt” automobile design is different from typical hybrids, the “series” designation is helpful, but that’s all. Hybrids to-date, by this reckoning, are parallel hybrids, since the gasoline and the electric motors are both connected to the drive train. In the Volt, the gasoline engine only powers an onboard electric generator, and only a powerful electric motor actually turns the wheels.
At a breakfast that Rob Peterson at General Motors set up for me and a handful of other bloggers (including Sam Abuelsamid from AutoblogGreen and David Houle from EvolutionShift) earlier this week with Burns, at GM’s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, the top R&D VP stressed that GM’s “E-Flex” concept is broader – it allows “the same powertrain to use different types of energy.”
Different types indeed. The Chevy Volt, a brilliant and long, long overdue automotive innovation, can run on either gasoline or electricity stored from the power grid. Currently planned to have a battery pack storing 16 kilowatt-hours and weighing under 400 pounds, the GM Volt will have a range of 40+ miles using plug-in electricity from home. The car will also be able to operate independently of the battery, running purely on generator supplied onboard electricity, getting 50 miles per gallon and having a range of 600 miles. This is the car we’ve been waiting for.
When I asked Burns why someone hadn’t made a car that had an onboard generator and an all-electric drivetrain sooner, he had some interesting answers. Much automotive R&D is influenced by government mandates, of course, and in the early 1990′s policies emphasized developing a zero emission vehicle – even though the Volt in a normal commute cycle would almost never use its onboard gasoline generator, it didn’t qualify as a ZEV. At the same time, for the coming hybrid cars, policy goals fixated on an 80 mile per gallon mileage standard- the Volt, when running just on gasoline, only gets about 50 mpg.
Not mentioned by Burns, but undoubtedly true, was the passion for hydrogen fuel cells felt by environmental activists which translated into relentless and very successful lobbying for policies favoring the fuel cell option.
Here is where e-flex technology gets really interesting: General Motor’s Volt isn’t just a long overdue innovation some might call a series hybrid. With an all electric drivetrain, it is a platform that can accept any source of electric power; an onboard generator running on hydrogen, diesel fuel, or gasoline; a fuel cell; batteries. No matter what technology is best suited to the fuel resources of wherever an e-flex vehicle is operated, the basic design and drivetrain stays the same when the power systems vary.
Returning to the Volt, what makes the series hybrid version of an e-flex car extremely exciting is not just the freedom of a vehicle with a 600 mile range that can operate most of the time on plug-in electricity – it is the utter simplicity of the vehicle. As Larry Burns put it, “you can see some big components dropping off the car” when you move to an all electric drivetrain. The most dramatic example of this is the transmission, which in a conventional hybrid is an amazingly complex mess of gearboxes. In an all electric vehicle, a two-speed transmission linking one electric engine to the drivetrain is all you need. These Volts are going to last forever.
Along with E-Flex platforms, eventually automobiles will have in-wheel motors, collision avoidance systems, ultra-safe interiors, increasingly capable modes of autopilot, and power sources we can only imagine. As Burns explained these and other features that constitute the imminent and first-ever “new automotive DNA,” his optimism was evident. And optimism is warranted. Today is the dawn of the automotive industry’s electric age, the biggest revolution since the horsedrawn carriage gave way to the gas powered car. Right now, today, the Chevy Volt is the biggest step forward into that age yet seen. Bring ‘em on.