The E-Flex Auto Revolution

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.

Larry Burns
Larry Burns
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.

14 Responses to “The E-Flex Auto Revolution”
  1. kent beuchert says:

    I’ve seen many articles on the Chevy VOLT and can say, as an electric car enthsuiast, that it is, as mentioned in the article, ideally positioned to move whichever way technology takes it. Tons of available biodiesel and a diesel turbo generator motor is called for, or ethanol powered gasoline engine, or when batteries become available, chuck the engine (figuratively, keep it for emergencies) and install enough batteries to go all-electric. This car doesn’t really care whether the infrastructure for recharging yet exists, or not. It’s flexible. The EV-1 was a piece of crap. This is brilliant. There are even bridge technologies possible – add enough batteries to get 80 miles of range and do even more to destroy the need for crude. A 40 mile range will absolutely knock the hell out of the gasoline retail business and crude oil imports. THIS is the car (not the pathetic EV-1, or the insignificant Tesla) that the oil exporting nation’s leaders stay awake at night worrying about. Or its coming look-a-likes from Toyota, Honda, etc.

  2. David Lassiter says:

    I agree with Kent Beuchert and look forward to his future positive comments. David Lassiter

  3. Doug Korthof says:

    Bob Lutz ducks the question, refuses responsive reply

    “Since it’s cheaper than Lithium, does not require research, lasts longer than the life of a full EV without the help of a gasoline engine, has adequate power . . . why not consider Nickel Metal Hydride (“NiMH”) for the serial hybrid E-Flex Volt?”.

    Bob Lutz’ unresponsive reply:
    “To: “doug korthof”
    Cc: “Jon Lauckner” ,,
    X-MIMETrack: Serialize by Router on USABHMG02/G/GMSERVER/GMC(Release 6.5.4FP1 HF827|October
    26, 2006) at 03/13/2007 09:55:23 PM,Serialize complete at 03/13/2007 09:55:23 PM
    Boy, are you messed up on batteries!”

    RE: “GM shows inner workings of hybrid battery research lab”
    by KATIE MERX 313-222-8762

    Why did no reporter grill GM why they don’t use the cheaper, longer-lasting, well-proven, still-running Nickel Metal Hydride (“NiMH”) batteries used in the 1999 EV1 and still in use in the 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV?

    In fact, the Toyota-Panasonic EV-95 NiMH is the ONLY production EV battery used in all plug-in cars that attained an all-electric range of more than 100 miles for more than 100,000 miles on hundreds of test, fleet- or customer-leased and customer-owned vehicles. The Ovonics version were never given the chance to go more than 50,000 miles, as GM crushed the EV1.

    According to an assessment by the California Air Resources Board, NiMH costs from $225 to $350 per kWh, no more than $13,000 for a large pack for a full EV, including retail profit and all components. A pack this size is capable of powering the over-3000-lb. EV1 or RAV4-EV or Honda EV-plus at more than adequate acceleration (the EV1 beat anything from the line; nothing could touch it 0 to 30 except a big Mercedes).

    A pack this sized weighs only 780 lbs, and hundreds of them are faultlessly working to this day in hundreds of Toyota RAV4-EV fleet cars from 2001, and customer-owned cars sold up to Nov., 2002. That’s over 4 years, and many have over 80,000 miles on the odometer, and they are, like the EV1 that were crushed, running as well now as when they were new.

    The Volt would only need a NiMH pack a third that size; moreover, part of the battery cost would be covered by not having to install a transmission, clutch, etc.

    Lithium costs $1000 per kWh and up for batteries represented to not have the thermal runaway problem, and even the riskier laptop batteries, with all the economies of mass production of hundreds of millions of batteries, cost over $400/kWh.

    NiMH does not require expensive research toward an uncertain goal that may never be found; but a Lithium wild goose chase does allow GM to divert attention from the very real existing plug-in EV cars.

    Even more important, every dime spent on lithium research may be for naught: even Bob Lutz admits that “…there’s a 10% chance of failure…” for the Volt project using Lithium. Lithium has shelf-life, thermal runaway, cycle-life and other problems that just don’t exist with NiMH (or even with lead acid).

    Why not ask GM’s Bob Lutz: “Why aren’t you using the cheaper, longer-lasting, most-tested, standard Electric car battery pack, Nickel Metal Hydride, the only battery proven to last longer than the life of a car?”.

    For that matter, the 1997 EV1, when its faulty Delco batteries were replaced by 1300 lbs. of Panasonic batteries, had an all-electric range of up to 110 miles and the batteries lasted over 50,000 miles (when GM crushed all of them). Even for lead-acid, a 600-lb. pack would be enough for the volt to go 40 miles in all-electric mode.

    The life-cycle costs of Lithium batteries are astronomical when compared to NiMH; even if the problems can be solved in the future, and even if the cost can be reduced, it’s no bar to releasing the VOLT now with existing, well-proven NiMH batteries that drove the EV1 up and down the hills of San Francisco like a mountain goat.

    Doug Korthof
    1020 Mar Vista
    Seal Beach, CA 90740-5842

  4. S Houston says:

    Ok, several points are obvious from this article:

    1) Detroit knows how to build a 50 mpg vehicle!

    2) Where/when is it going to be in the market?

    3) This story supports 0.40 kw hours per mile as the energy requirement for this class of vehicle (also consistent with the Prius numbers).

    4) This implies that 60 kw (80 hp) would be satisfactory in this application with a 2.5X safety factor.

    5) The discussion about energy/mile and vehicle range will be RADICALLY reduced with the addition of load (“0.5″ kw?) of “collision avoidance systems, … increasingly capable modes of autopilot”, navigation, sound system, et. al.. Consider that a built in cell phone is about 1% of the propulsion load.

    6) A charge for a 40 mile run requires 16 kWh of stored energy (57.6 mega joules).

    7) To storage of 57.6 mega joules requires at least 110 (possibly as high as 150) mega joules input into the typical power generating plant.

    8) If the vehicle mpg performance described in the article is based on gasoline IC, then a properly matched NEW clean diesel should raise the mpg performance above 70 mpg highway.

    9) And this, then, raises the question why the batteries (except for the cases of high density polluted areas)? Maybe “batteries not included” option should exist (for both weight and cost savings).

    At least these are the thoughts that comes to me.

  5. S Houston says:

    “There’s just one problem: The Volt may never get built.

    Production depends on advances in battery technology that could be years away.”
    GM tries to unplug Volt hype, Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

    If the “VOLT” really achieves 50 mpg when the the battery charge is depleted, then, it stands to reason EVEN WITHOUT THE “advances in battery technology ” GM ALREADY HAS A MILD HYBRID TODAY!

    As a 50 mpg hybrid (producable today), the “VOLT” would REDUCE CO2 emissions by possibly as much as 170 g/km. So, it can’t do 40 miles “all electric” big deal!

    A savings of 170 g/km is a significant impact worthy of serious consideration.

    Further, the fuel consumption would be about a 50% (possibly more) reduction over the typical domestic vehicle offerings.


  6. storm connors says:

    GM sold the NiMH battery technology which they owned to Exxon Mobil. Exxon Mobil will not license the technology to be used to make EV sized packs.

    GM could build the Volt tomorrow. The concept doesn’t require any battery development. They could even use lead acid batteries.If the plug in range is 30 miles instead of 40, is this a reason not to build it? Is a $1000 battery pack that has to be replaced every 5 years or 50,000 miles really inferior to a $20,000 battery pack that would last for 200,000 miles? GM keeps coming up with reasons for delay which make no sense.

    They have had this vehicle on the drawing board since 1999. They are frittering away yet another opportunity to be a world automotive leader. One has to wonder why.

    The car they build could be aimed at the niche markets (as is the Hummer) and be wildly successful. They seem unwilling to build anything until it can have all the performance characteristics and serve the same market as the Buick. The niches made up of: the save the earth group plus the early adopters of any new technology, plus those who want to save fuel plus those who like the idea of an electric car plus those who are tired of the costly maintenance of ICE cars plus other groups I haven’t thought about could insure that GM’s production for the first few years would be sold.

    Stop creating new excuses and start building cars.

  7. S Houston says:

    GM “VOLT”

    Well, they’ve already bought a lot of hybrid technology from others. What’s the problem with buying the PRIUS battery packs and then just adjust the control system to match! At least they would have a 50 mpg product instead of a “POSTER PICTURE”!

    We are WAITING …. AS USUAL for “Detroit” to do something. And they wonder why people buy “foreign” … it’s simple they DELIVER something!

  8. jeff scherer says:

    I have often had later very successful ideas others produce in 5 years for sale as new products for a diversity of inventions and often enough 10 to 15 years before they appear for sale and seeking to invent I often lack one minor subassembly that someoine should have invented by the time I want to patent. Inventing is frustrating sometimes.

    In inventing, I have developed extremely choosy standards which have prevented me thus far from following thru the patent process for that first well of cash I can apply to a boat load of prime ideas.

    From experience response letter number 6 of the e-flex auto revolution article on the ecoworld website is right on the money provided the cars or vans body is a simple box for tall people and busineses who have short commutes in 30 mile range using lead acid batteries.

  9. Brian Dean says:

    If Storm Connors numbers are right:

    “GM could build the Volt tomorrow. The concept doesn’t require any battery development. They could even use lead acid batteries.If the plug in range is 30 miles instead of 40, is this a reason not to build it? Is a $1000 battery pack that has to be replaced every 5 years or 50,000 miles really inferior to a $20,000 battery pack that would last for 200,000 miles? GM keeps coming up with reasons for delay which make no sense.”

    Then I would vote for lead acid batteries in a hybrid because storage time isn’t so much a factor to me as price.

    As far as Doug Korthoff’s assessment, if GM is researching Lithium instead of using NiMH, then I’m betting it’s because they foresee the cost of NiMH raw materials going through the roof as electric technology becomes more popular. The supply of most mineral resources is not able to expand when demand increases, or at least not by enough to keep the price constant.

    Most of the reason we don’t have hydrogen fuel cells right now is because nobody can figure out how to make an efficient device for it that doesn’t use massive amounts of platinum (which is rarer than gold).

    That said: I’ll be glad if GM does choose to go with the series hybrid direction instead of building parallel hybrids like Toyota is doing, because they’ll be a lot easier to retro-fit later on if a better gasoline generator, or other power generator technology becomes available in the future.

    Heck, maybe GM could be the ones to develop it, and set up their dealerships to do the retrofitting themselves.

  10. Rick says:

    I mostly agree with storm connors

    GM killed the electric car, they sold the pattent to a Oil company(though I think it might be Texaco/Chevron instead of Exxon, I’ll have to check). Toyota’s Rav4EV with NiMH were great, theyve reached over 66 000 miles and are still going on the original battery, but the Oil corp that got the GM patent sued Toyota.

    Excellent EVs could be on the market right now, and had they not been sabotaged in the 90s, and NiMH technology and EVs would be even better and more affordable by now

  1. [...] This was again brought home by an intimate breakfast that we four bloggers [For those of you wanting a more detailed analysis, environmental analysis of GM’s E-Flex technology, please read Ed Ring’s post] had with Larry Burns, the VP of Technology and Development and Strategic Planning of GM. I had described Larry as “A Man Who Wants to Change the World” and I believe he does. At the very least it is almost his job description. He gave the four of us an updated presentation from the one he personally gave me that I discussed in the post about him. [...]

  2. [...] For other takes on this presentation, visit Autoblog Green, Evolution Shift, and EcoWorld. [...]

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