2011 Chevy Volt: Will GM Get It Done?
A Progress Report on GM's Plug-in EV From a Former EV1 Insider
By Gary Witzenburg, Contributor Email
By Gary Witzenburg, Contributor Email
http://www.edmunds.com/insideline/do/Features/articleId=131546?tid=edmunds.il.home.photopanel..3.*When Rick Wagoner, the chairman and CEO of General Motors, walked onto the stage at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show to introduce what has become the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, he might as well have said that GM was going to build a flying car.
Sure, it's a cool idea to have an electric vehicle (EV) that has the ability to drive 40 miles on power from a lithium-ion battery pack, recharge its batteries on the go from a small gasoline engine for a total cruising range of 400 miles, and then plug into the electric power grid at night for a complete recharge. But it sounds like another one of GM's pronouncements of its intention to remake the American industrial landscape, something it does with comical frequency. Remember the 1960 Chevy Corvair, 1971 Chevy Vega, 1976 Chevy Chevette, 1985 Chevy Nova and 1990 Saturn S1?
And what has come of it all? Did you see any flying cars on the way to work today?
It makes you wonder about the chances that GM will come through with the 2011 Chevy Volt with its E-Flex electric powertrain. After all, haven't we been through this before with the 1996 GM EV1?
It's a question I've asked myself, since I was there inside General Motors, working on the GM EV1.
Who Killed the Electric Car? You Did
Most people view the GM EV1 as a dismal failure. Viewed from strictly a marketing perspective, they are right.
The auto industry's first (and so far only) modern, purpose-built, battery-powered electric car for the wide-open American highway was an absolute technology triumph, the most practical, energy-efficient four-wheeled vehicle ever to roll down the road. Even so, fewer than 1,000 EV1s were built between 1996 and 1999. Barely 800 were leased to customers before GM pulled the car's (ahem) plug.
The Truth About GM and Electricity
How serious was GM about electric propulsion? ATV's business plan was to lead technology development and then dominate the market so completely that other automakers would purchase GM technology under license rather than invest billions developing their own. What went wrong?
Well, a lithium-polymer battery that was supposed to provide safe, reliable power with the same range as a gasoline power plant in a small, light and affordable package just never happened. The low-energy lead-acid (PbA) battery was quickly discarded because of its size and weight, while nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) held twice the energy but in a package that not only was as big and heavy as an internal combustion engine but also cost substantially more as well.
We made the cars and put the EV1 into use as a lease vehicle. People liked the idea (well, everybody but automotive journalists, anyway), but it was a commute-car package that didn't really have enough utility for anything else but commuting. Also, no one seemed to be willing to pay even a reasonable fraction of what it would cost to build an EV1 as a production vehicle. And electronic controls for the internal combustion engine improved so drastically that the whole clean-air question became moot for most people.
In truth, GM cared about electricity, but no one else really did. Conspiracy theorists might complain that GM had an evil agenda, but they'd be better off either taking a short course in high school economics about supply and demand or looking for flying saucers in Roswell, New Mexico.
Bob Boniface did the early work on the 2010 Camaro's proportions and design language while in GM's advanced studio and now he's directing the Chevy Volt design. Its drag coefficient (Cd) is now 120 counts lower than that of the showcar, which is critically important to battery range. "Short of EV1, Volt is the most aerodynamically efficient production car GM has ever done," Boniface asserts.
Other challenges in the design? "It's a big battery, in the shape of a T," Boniface says, "and the majority of it goes down the centerline; the rest is sideways under the rear seat. We needed to make sure we didn't displace the occupants or take away storage or convenience features, and we wanted to keep the roof low. Making all that battery invisible to the occupants was tough.
"The showcar had a lot more 'dash-to-axle' — the front axle was very far forward — and a very long hood. The production car has a lot of plan view [curvature as viewed from above] in front for aero, and the executions of surfaces and details are more sophisticated. But it has a great stance, large wheels, a nice wide track and a lot of wedge."