Chevy Volt: GM's Moon Shot

Posted by: David Kiley on September 16, 2008

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According to General Motors, the Chevrolet Volt extended electric car it plans to put in dealerships in 2010 will recharge on household current in about three hours. The question is whether the car CEO Rick Wagoner calls a “moon shot” can recharge GM overall.

The automaker, struggling under a mountain of debt and mounting losses and falling market share chose its 100th anniversary celebration at its Detroit headquarters to introduce the production design of the Volt. Though some sketches of the car had leaked out in recent weeks, the design of the car took many off-guard. Unlike the swoopy, almost muscle-car look of the auto show concept from the 2007 Detroit auto show, the car is a pretty traditional looking compact car that seats four. Indeed, it will be built off the same engineering architecture as the forthcoming Chevy Cruze.

GM executives like Wagoner and Chevrolet chief Ed Peper invoked John F. Kennedy’s challenge to reach the moon in the 1960s to describe the impact the company feels the Volt’s technology will have on transportation. “The world is watching…who will lead the reinvention of the automobile,” said Wagoner.

The basic info about the Volt that GM feels will be game-changer:

It will get around 40 miles on a charge of its battery.

Working with utility companies on education, owners will be encouraged to plug their car in for a recharge overnight when electricity is at its cheapest.

GM says the cost of running a Volt will be about 80 cents per kilowatt hour. The cost to a household for charging a Volt all month is roughly the same cost as running a water-heater. Volt owners are expected to save at least $500 per year on gasoline when compared with a 30 mpg gas-fed car. But that does not take into account far bigger savings possible for people who seldom drive more than 40 miles per day. The comparison to gas, says GM, for running the car mostly on electricity is about 80 cents per gallon

80% of Americans drive 40 miles per less per day, meaning a huge percentage of Volt buyers will hardly ever fill up the tank with gas.

GM is battling anyone who wants to call the car “a plug-in hybrid.” It is, says GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, “an extended range electric car.”

The secret sauce for consumers with the Volt is that it eliminates “range anxiety,” which is the worry people have with electric vehicles that it will run out of juice. The Volt utilizes a gas motor to provide backup electricity to the engine when the battery is drained. So, if you are driving a 100 miles or 200 miles, the battery will take you the first 40 miles, and the gas motor will take you the rest of the way.

The car will go up to 100 miles per hour, and reach 0-60 in about nine seconds with no gear shifting….just straight acceleration.

The interior of the car is to have two electronic screens, one in front of the driver that displays important info to the driver like speed limit and fuel consumption, as well as a center screen to house a typical navigation/entertainment system. The controls on the center-stack for climate control, etc. are iPod-like, and utilize “capacitive touch” controls, which means the surface is flat and each “button” (it’s not a button as the surface is flat) senses the electricity in a person’s finger.

The space taken up by the battery means that it only seats four. The back of the car is a hatch. The hatch, when open, actually exposes the heads of the rear seat occupants. The backseats fold flat to provide roomy storage when only one or twp people are on board.

The battery has a life of ten years and 150,000 miles. Unlike cellphone batteries, the battery will not wear down toward the end of its life. There may be a secondary market for the batteries, with utility companies buying them up to use for other purposes.

The cost of the Volt is not set yet. For now, the range is set between $30,000 and $50,000, but is widely expected to be close to $35,000 after Federal incentives kick in.

GM believes it will sell 10,000 Volts in 2011 after selling a few hundred in late 2010, and 60,000 in the second year. The technology can be fit into other subcompact and compact cars like the Chevy Malibu.

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Reader Comments

Rich

September 16, 2008 08:00 PM

I'm totally cheering the Volt. Go Volt!

Snoz

September 16, 2008 10:39 PM

GM's Volt is not a "moon shot" project by any figment of imagination. The Volt is just a hybrid car that GM should have and could have built ten years ago had Wagoner had the same vision that Toyota's Watanabe had. If the Volt does not appear in dealership showroom on time, the only "moon shot" Wagoner's refering to is probably his own head. However, by all accounts, GM's Volt is progressing well and should be a huge success and Wagoner's job will be saved. Aerodynamic aside, the curved body style will have a broader consumer appeal than sharp prismatic shapes -- important consideration given the hugh R&D cost needed to be amortized. The Volt could be Wagoner's epiphany that will change GM's fortune.

Brendan

September 17, 2008 12:53 PM

This car is an an admirable achievement for GM and the US auto industry, even if it doesn't make a profit. But there are still questions: will its electric-only range be 40 miles in the real world? Also, what happens in the inevitable crash? Will the huge battery leak caustic material all over the road and occupants? Will the electric charge be a danger to rescuers? Most importantly, what will it cost?

FME III

October 25, 2008 11:03 AM

No, Snoz, the Volt is emphatically not "just a hybrid." The writer says "the battery will take you the first 40 miles, and the gas motor will take you the rest of the way," which can mislead the careless reader. Actually, the electric motor "takes you the rest of the way." The gas-powered generator makes the electricity that enables the electric motor to do this. A simple concept, but devilishly complicated in real life. How do you regulate charge levels to maximize battery life? How do you run the heater, wipers, AC, radio with booming speakers that buyers expect, and all the other housekeeping loads without losing range? What about battery performance in cold weather? How do you make a seamless transition between battery and generator power? There's a reason that Toyota has been poo-pooing the idea. This is a case where the cliche holds true: If it were easy, someone would have already done it.

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Want the straight scoop on the auto industry? Detroit bureau chief David Welch , Dexter Roberts and Ian Rowley bring daily scoop, keen observations and provocative perspective on the auto business from around the globe. Read their take on such weighty issues as Detroit’s attempt at a comeback, Toyota’s quest for dominance and the search for an efficient car.

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