Last week General Motors announced they will co-develop a lithium ion battery for their “Volt” electric car in partnership with A123 Systems, one of the leading companies in the world developing these next generation batteries. In the announcement, GM stated “A123 is a forerunner in nanophosphate-based cell technology, which, compared to other lithium-ion battery chemistries, provides higher power output, longer life, and safer operations over the life of the battery.”
The GM Volt parked in front of A123 Systems headquarters.
This announcement signifies GM is moving forward to bring the Volt from concept to reality. Last week GM Vice Chairman for Product Development, Robert Lutz, said he was “personally as excited about the Volt as anything I’ve ever done.”
The Volt is an example of what GM calls “E-Flex” technology, where an all-electric drivetrain derives power from a variety of sources. The Volt is designed to have no more than 400 pounds of batteries, giving it a range on batteries only of about 40 miles. But along with the battery pack, the Volt is also equipped with an onboard internal combustion engine and generator that can provide 100% of the power requirement of the car when the batteries are depleted. This is a far more efficient way to use an internal combustion engine, since the motor will constantly operate at a constant RPM. For more specifications on the Volt, unverified but very interesting, refer to the Wikipedia “Chevrolet Volt” write up.
When we learned about the selection of A123 Systems by GM, we called GM spokesman Rob Peterson to ask him where this puts the Volt in terms of actually getting onto the road. He said the Volt should move from two concept cars to a few actual prototypes by early next spring. He said “because this has the eyeballs of senior leadership the timeline is being accelerated as much as possible,” and that “typically you need 2-3 years between engineering development vehicles and full production.” This assessment is consistent with the rumors as reported on Wikipedia, i.e., we could see Volts in the showroom by 2010.
Peterson’s comments about GM’s selection process that ended up with A123 Systems were encouraging for anyone who wants to see all electric vehicles any time soon. He said “when we put out an RFP in March 2007, we ended up getting 13 serious proposals. Up to that time we didn’t even know there were 13 companies in the world who believed they could make a 16 kilowatt-hour battery to our specifications!”
When literally millions of “strong” hybrids, plug-in hybrids, two-mode hybrids, and flex-fuel vehicles such as the Volt (which I still prefer to call a “series hybrid”) are on the road, it will be because these battery vendors have ramped up to produce safe, durable, affordable batteries with viable energy density. These will be batteries engineered to provide sustained power to propel a vehicle, not clever adaptations of batteries that were designed for something else entirely. And as Peterson put it, “nothing appears to be blocking the view, there’s a lot of hard work ahead, but no 100 foot wall.”