Sep 18, 2008
Tech - The Chevy Volt;GM's huge bet on the Electric Car
I can see the future of the automobile — I just can't quite hear it. I'm riding around General Motors' secure proving grounds in Milford, Mich., in what from the outside looks like an ordinary Chevrolet Malibu. But inside it couldn't be more different. The test car isn't powered by a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, like nearly every automobile since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line in 1908. Nor is it a hybrid like Toyota's fuel-efficient Prius with a gas engine assisted by an electric motor. This Malibu is electric, powered by a 400-lb. lithium-ion battery nestled beneath the floorboard — an energy source that is not only silent but entirely emission-free.
Actually, what we're driving is not a Malibu at all but a "mule," a stunt double for what will become the Chevrolet Volt, a new plug-in electric car that could save a struggling GM and, not incidentally, change the way we drive — just as long as they can make it work in time. "Developing this car is not something for the lighthearted," says Alex Cattelan, the Volt's assistant chief vehicle engineer, from behind the wheel. "But it's so much fun."
To understand why the Volt could be so important to two once dominant institutions that have hit hard times — General Motors and the United States — all you need to do is visit your nearest gas station, where a gallon of unleaded now costs an average of $3.64. We're spending around $700 billion a year to import oil, with much of that money being shipped to countries that don't like us very much. When we burn all that imported oil, we release nearly 2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, heating up the planet. Those twin trends can't continue, and the solution "is to move away from oil as quickly and as devastatingly as possible," according to former CIA director turned green warrior James Woolsey.
GM is hardly the only major automaker to explore electrics as the way to make that happen; in recent months every major international automaker has announced plans to produce plug-in hybrids, semi-electric cars that can be recharged from a wall socket, like the Volt. But it is GM — which has seen revenues vanish as Americans stampede away from SUVs and other gas gluttons — that is pursuing the most ambitious program. The company does not have a happy history with electrics, having produced the battery-powered EV1 in the 1990s only to discontinue it in 1999. But this time GM has staked its future on the Volt, promising to have it in showrooms by the end of 2010 — far quicker than the pace of development for a standard car, let alone one whose battery does not technically exist yet. "This is not a choice," says Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst for the research firm Global Insight. "This is necessary for their survival." And in a warming world, perhaps ours too.
Under the hood, Bob Lutz is not your typical green. The former Marine pilot — who owns a pair of surplus military jets he likes to fly — probably has a carbon footprint half the size of Michigan. But it is the gravelly Lutz, GM's vice chairman for global product development, who is the driving force behind the Volt. Lutz worked in the auto industry for decades, left to run the battery company Exide Technologies and returned to GM in 2001 full of ideas. His dream was to develop an all-electric car that would be powered by lithium-ion batteries similar to the kind now used in cell phones and laptops. Most current hybrids use nickel-metal-hydride batteries — less expensive, but also less powerful. In 2003 a Silicon Valley start-up named Tesla Motors announced it would produce a $100,000 lithium-ion-powered sports car, and that helped galvanize Lutz. "If some guy in California can do it, to me it shows that this is certifiable technology," he says.
GM as a whole shared that confidence and at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show unveiled an early concept-car version of the Volt. To the surprise of even Lutz, it was the hit of the show. Other hybrids may offer fuel efficiency, but the Volt would go several steps further. A traditional hybrid like the Prius has two means of propulsion: one electric motor run by a battery and one engine run by gasoline. The battery can't take you very far — maybe 7 or 8 miles — which is why the gas engine kicks in so often. But as you drive, the battery does pick up extra juice, mostly courtesy of what's known as regenerative braking — collecting the heat generated every time you hit the brakes, converting it to electricity and storing it in the battery. The result: less gas used on every trip.
The Volt will rely on its electric motor, powered by its new battery, and will go up to 40 miles without using a drop of gas. For the nearly 80% of Americans who drive less than 40 miles a day, that would mean they could effectively eliminate gasoline from their lives. After 40 miles, the Volt's gas engine switches on, but unlike the Prius', it doesn't make the car move an inch. Rather, it generates electricity and feeds it to the battery, much the way an emergency generator in a hospital keeps the lights on during a blackout. This allows you to go an additional several hundred miles before you need either a fill-up or a charge-up. "With [past electrics] people had to change the way they lived," says Andrew Farah, the Volt's chief engineer. "I want a vehicle that doesn't ask them to change at all."
GM always knew that the hardest part of building the Volt would be harnessing the still young lithium-ion technology to create the right battery for the job. In a normal development process, GM would work with batterymakers to design and test the power packs, then begin making the car itself. But these aren't normal times at GM, a company that lost $15.5 billion in the second quarter of 2008 alone; that surrendered the aura of technological leadership to Toyota; that finds itself squeezed between tightening fuel-economy standards and a fleet that is still shifting from trucks and SUVs. So the order went out to design the batteries and the car simultaneously, with the aim of putting Volts for sale in the "tens of thousands," according to Lutz, by the end of 2010.
On Sept. 16, 2008, GM's 100th birthday, the company further committed to its self-imposed deadline by unveiling the final production design of the Volt: a sleek and aerodynamic body that still looks more like a family sedan than a car of the future. Now it will be up to the team in the company's advanced battery lab to make good on the 2010 pledge.
That unit, led by engineer Denise Gray, is currently putting various lithium-ion modules through their paces, cycling them through charges and testing them in warm and cold conditions, with the aim of ensuring the packs can run safely for at least 150,000 miles of driving. The technology has had its problems in other applications — recall the lithium-ion batteries that caught on fire in Sony laptops in 2006. But so far, GM says, theirs are performing well, an assessment confirmed by outside analysts. The test packs I'm shown have gone through the equivalent of about 22,000 miles of driving, and the peppy Gray — who seems to be lithium-ion-powered herself — says they're still going strong.
Even if the technology is ready by the end of 2010, critics doubt that manufacturers will be able to produce the batteries at scale by then — or cheaply enough to make the Volt remotely affordable. (Lutz says he's "shooting for $40,000 or less," which would still be a stiff premium for what is, high tech aside, a family car.) Menahem Anderman, the founder of Total Battery Consulting, believes that it should take GM four to five years to develop and test new lithium-ion packs. "I'd like to be wrong," he says. "But it's difficult to see how they can succeed."
Toyota, GM's bête noire, seems to agree. Six months after GM unveiled the Volt concept in 2007, Toyota announced it was already test-driving plug-in hybrids — cars that adhere to the two-engine model of all hybrids but allow the battery to plug into the grid and pick up an extra charge while parked. Toyota has been as quiet about its plug-in plans as GM has been loud about the Volt, but it does seem that the Japanese company takes a more skeptical view of lithium technology. "Our thinking is of a smaller battery with a lower initial cost [for the consumer]," says Tasatami Takimoto, Toyota's executive vice president for green tech.
No matter when the Volt hits the showrooms, it seems unlikely to appear in large numbers right away. In a July filing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM said the Volt and other plug-ins would be "low-volume applications" until 2015 and that the government shouldn't take the technology into account when devising new fuel-economy rules. To Lutz, any initial success of the Volt matters less than GM's ability to improve and adapt the car's system across its entire fleet. "This is generation-one technology, and it's been developed very fast," he says. "Generation two is already in the hopper, and generation three is being worked on."
GM — and the rest of the auto industry — can't go through those generations fast enough. More than hydrogen fuel cells (perpetually 10 to 15 years off) and cellulosic ethanol (ditto), electric cars represent a promising near-term solution to America's oil addiction. The infrastructure to support electric cars exists today — it's called the electric grid, and we can all tap into it in our homes. Electricity is far cheaper than the cheapest oil — plug-ins generally run on the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon. Even with America's current electrical supply, which is more than 50% coal-generated, switching to plug-ins will reduce greenhouse gases, and as the grid gets cleaner and cleaner, those savings will only increase. A joint study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that by 2050, widespread adoption of plug-ins could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 450 million metric tons annually — equivalent to removing 82.5 million passenger cars from the road.
Nor would plug-ins overwhelm the electrical grid. Because utilities need to keep excess capacity available to meet rare peak-power events — a bit like a hotel holding 20 extra empty rooms for a convention that happens once a year — there's plenty of electricity to power plug-ins, provided they charge at off-peak times. A study by the Pacific National Northwest Laboratory found that the grid could power 73% of the nation's car fleet without adding a single new plant, provided most of the charging was done at night.
The Volt may not be the only way to kick the oil habit, but the sheer excitement the unfinished car has generated — more than 30,000 people have joined an unofficial waiting list — indicates that GM has taken the lead in the race for tomorrow's car. The real question may be whether the company, still bleeding revenue in a depressed market, can survive until the Volt arrives. Lutz has no doubt. "This is the last program we would ever cut," he insists. "Even as we face the Grim Reaper, we would still be spending money on the Volt." Let's hope so. When it comes to the Volt, what's good for General Motors could once again be good for America.
— With reporting by Coco Masters, Yuki Oda and Michiko Toyama / Tokyo