With Tesla now shipping 10+ vehicles per week, and other automakers, small and large, increasingly announcing electric vehicle programs, what is the latest on the Chevy Volt? At this point, with about 110 weeks to go before the Volt is going to be in showrooms, are they on track? We got an update last week from GM spokesperson Rob Peterson, as well as access to photos of the final Volt exterior and interior design. Here’s what we know:
GM is currently testing two “mule” vehicles with prototype components in an old Malibu body. By the end of this year GM expects to have the next generation of test vehicles in service, using production intent propulsion and chassis components. There will be over 30 of these vehicles, many of which will be used for crash safety testing.
The battery remains the biggest wild card in GM’s development program. While GM is confident they have a viable battery at this point, there are many performance variables associated with the battery that they still need to fully understand and manage. As Peterson put it, “right now is a very important development period for the battery, we are learning the capabilities of the battery relating to safety, protection, and optimization.” Peterson said GM hopes to have a production contract in place with at least one of their battery suppliers by the end of the year. Currently they are sourcing batteries for testing from LG Chem and A123 Systems.
When asked how much GM intends to charge for the car, Peterson was not specific, noting the price will depend on a variety of factors that can’t be assessed two years ahead of time. Market conditions in 2010 will be a variable, as will the costs. While GM has a pretty good idea of what the Volt will cost at this point, until they have a contract with their battery supplier, one major variable remains unclear. But Peterson emphasized the choice of Chevy to deliver their first extended range electric vehicle was a clear statement of intent – “build an affordable car that fits people’s lifestyles; four seats and a long range capability.”
The Volt remains a unique design, insofar as it has an all-electric drivetrain, but also has an onboard gasoline engine that turns a generator. This makes the Volt distinct from 100% battery powered vehicles such as the Tesla Roadster, but also distinct from all hybrid cars currently on the road, which use complex transmissions to allow the onboard gasoline engine to share traction responsibilities with the electric motors. By completely disconnecting the gasoline engine from the drivetrain, the Volt’s onboard gasoline engine can operate at a constant RPM, allowing extremely efficient use of fuel. This innovation also relieves Volt designers of the need for a complex and very expensive transmission, since electric motors have an extraordinary range of functional RPM. This innovation also allows GM to downsize the battery, which is not an option on a 100% battery powered vehicle, and this also greatly lowers costs. The Volt is designed to deliver 50 MPG on gasoline only, a 440 mile combined range, and for around town, a 40 mile range operating exclusively on electricity. The Volt is not just another plug-in hybrid.
As Peterson put it, “there are a lot of engineers at GM who could retrofit a car and build a plug-in hybrid in a few days, but that is not a repeatable process for mass vehicles.” The fact that not one other major automaker has a credible plan to deliver an extended range electric vehicle (EREV, also referred to as a series hybrid), is indicative of just how much is required to make this leap. But it is also likely the EREV design will become the standard for light vehicles in the coming years.