Michigan: Early versions of the Chevrolet Volt’s battery packs are powerful enough to run the high-stakes rechargeable car, but dozens of issues remain before General Motors Corp. can start selling the revolutionary vehicle in 2010 as planned.
The Volt’s chief engineer is on a tight schedule to figure out how the car will handle the batteries’ weight, dissipate their heat and mechanically transfer their power to the wheels. That’s not to mention the list of issues that have nothing to do with the fact that the car plugs in to the wall for recharging.
But the 47-year old veteran GM engineer, who was recruited from a GM post in Germany to run the high-profile project, is driven by knowing the entire company’s future could rest with it.
Work on the Volt, introduced as a concept car at the 2007 Detroit auto show, has taken on a more urgent pace with gasoline hovering near $4 per gallon and the U.S. auto market dramatically shifting from trucks to cars.
The car is designed to run on an electric motor powered by a battery pack. Drivers will recharge the vehicle from a standard home wall outlet.
The Volt will be able to travel 40 miles (64 km) on a full charge, and a small gasoline engine will recharge the batteries to keep it rolling on longer trips. GM says the vehicle will get the equivalent of 150 miles (240 km) per gallon.
But for now, as a new commercial airing during the Olympics touts the Volt as the pinnacle of GM’s fuel economy improvements and hybrid lineup, Farah and hundreds of other engineers are working to deal with the inevitable glitches from new technology.
Battery issues may delay launch
Simultaneously, other GM workers are testing batteries to make sure they last at least 10 years or 150,000 miles (240,000 km). It would cost more than $10,000 to replace them.
Other workers are making the Volt more functional, giving it the room and feel of a regular car “such that the vehicle is not just a battery on wheels,” Farah said.
The early concept, a low-riding, sleek silver hatchback, was uncomfortable to sit in and not very functional, Farah said. The new five-door hatchback version more resembles a normal car, a little larger than a Honda Civic.
Late last year, it looked like the Volt’s schedule would be derailed by battery delays. Two competing battery makers - Compact Power Inc. of Troy, Michigan, which is working with parent LG Chem of Korea, and Frankfurt, Germany-based Continental Automotive Systems, working with GM and A123 Systems Inc. of Watertown, Massachusetts fell 10 weeks behind on delivering the power packs.
GM engineers used the time to work on the mechanical connections. Batteries arrived in January at GM’s sprawling Warren, Michigan, technical centre, and the team has nearly erased the 10-week deficit, Farah said.
To hit the market by 2010
Although GM has promised to begin selling the Volt in a little more than two years, experts wonder if it will be ready in time, whether enough batteries will be available to sell the cars in significant numbers, and whether the cost can be reduced to make the car affordable to the masses.
GM has said the Volt will cost $30,000 to $40,000, and that it expects to sell 100,000 per year starting in 2012. While ambitious, that’s still 81,000 fewer than the number of Prius gas-electric hybrids sold by Toyota last year.
Brett Smith, assistant director for manufacturing and technology at the Center for Automotive Research, said even in small volumes, the Volt is a game-changer. “It’s an entirely different technology. It’s an entirely different powertrain layout. It’s a huge step forward,” he said Tuesday at an industry conference in Traverse City.
Will recapture technology leadership
Much of GM’s push on the Volt is designed to recapture the technology leadership image from Toyota, which has led the way in alternative powertrains with its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid car, Smith said.
High gas prices already have forced a major lifestyle changes in the U.S., with people taking fewer vacations or weekend trips. Americans drove 53.2 billion fewer miles (85 billion fewer km) as gas prices climbed from November through June than they did over the same eight-month period a year earlier, the Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday.
The Volt, Farah said, can keep people mobile with only the adjustment of having to plug in a car at night. “It’s an opportunity to change the way we consume energy without significantly changing our lifestyle,” he said.