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The Chevrolet Volt: GM’s EREV a Work In Progress

By Felix Kramer, Founder, The California Cars Initiative; and Jack Rosebro, Green Car Congress

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The striking styling of the Chevrolet Volt concept has been nixed for the production version, due to poor aerodynamic properties.

While in town for the Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors invited a group of stakeholders—ranging from environmentalists to plug-in hybrid advocates to fuel-cell education specialists—to the event, in order to bring them up to date on the progress of the Chevrolet Volt Extended Range Electric Vehicle (EREV) project, almost a year after it was first announced (earlier post).

GM representatives also billed the event as a learning experience for the Volt development team, as well as an opportunity to generate feedback on the most effective way to market the product between now and the beginning of production. CalCars.org and Green Car Congress were among the invited guests.

Volt1
Powertrain of the Chevy Volt concept. The production battery pack will be arranged in a “T” shape, running behind the seating area as well as down the center of the vehicle. Click to enlarge.

Present were: Frank Weber, Global Vehicle Chief Engineer for the E-Flex Systems; Tony Posawatz, Vehicle Line Director, E-Flex Systems and Chevy Volt; Denise Gray, Director of Hybrid Energy Storage Systems and Strategy; and Al Weverstad, Executive Director, Environment and Safety Policy. Weber, who hails from Germany, said that his presence is evidence of the company’s determination to make E-Flex a “global strategy.”

Events such as these are part of the company’s new transparency, along with GM’s Fastlane blog and teleconferences, to keep the EV and PHEV community informed about progress on the Volt as well as the larger E- Flex project. Such efforts also dovetail with the company’s effort to position Chevy as a multi-fuel leader and GM’s greenest brand, and to make amends for the negative publicity that surrounded the demise of GM’s EV1 electric car.

Announced in January, the Volt is the first of a planned series of vehicles to be built and sold worldwide around a common core of components called “E-Flex.” The components can be configured to create an electric vehicle or a plug-in series hybrid fueled by gasoline, diesels, biofuels, or hydrogen.

In the case of the Volt, the configuration will be a gasoline or E85-fueled plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range (AER) of 40 miles and an “aggressive” target production date, according to Bob Lutz, of November 2010. General Motors is promoting the use of the EREV acronym to distinguish E-Flex variants from competing plug-in hybrids.

Making Lithium-Ion Work. The 16 kWh battery packs required to propel the Volt are the source of much speculation, and several details emerged about the packs:

  • The original Request For Proposals for the Volt battery pack went out to 22 companies. 13 returned technical proposals, and two partnerships (Compact Power/LG Chem and Continental/A123Systems) were chosen. (Earlier post.)

  • A123Systems also won a second development contract for cells. GM took delivery of its first test pack at the end of October from Compact Power/LG Chem, and the automaker expects its first pack from A123 and Continental by year’s end. (Earlier post.)

Both packs are designed to be bench-tested, rather than installed in a development vehicle. They will be evaluated with a cycler, a machine that can charge and discharge the pack to simulate specific driving cycles. The pack can then be tested in a variety of scenarios, such as one depleted cell, one shorted cell, or excessive resistance. The pack cells are prismatic (rectangular in shape) as opposed to the cylindrical shape that is prevalent among today’s Li-Ion cells. The production pack will be arranged in a "T" shape, running behind the seating area as well as down the center of the vehicle, much like the pack configuration used in GM’s EV1.

The Volt’s battery pack will be liquid-cooled; company officials declined to identify the coolant, although “it won’t be Flourine”, which GM has used to cool hybrid electronics in the past. What are the barriers to success with lithium-ion? “Basically, it comes down to two issues," explained Denise Gray, GM’s Director of Hybrid Energy Storage Systems, “thermal management and cost.

Al Weverstad quoted Bob Lutz, chairman of GM North America, who remarked in August that “breakthrough battery technology will drive future automotive propulsion, and the company that aligns with the best strategic partners will win.” Weverstad also said he is confident the battery technology can handle 40 miles of all-electric range; remaining issues involve durability and cost. The battery pack specification requires no more than 20% battery degradation after 10 years.

Company officials said that if one company lands the Volt battery order for 60,000 to 100,000 vehicles—at 16 kilowatt-hours and 300 cells per pack&mash;that company will immediately become the world’s largest lithium battery manufacturer.

Moving Toward Production. Frank Weber described the E-Flex as “GM’s highest priority project.” He noted that five years ago, “no one expected that batteries would improve so much.” He emphasized that the Volt was destined for mass production, GM style: “not for a few hundred test vehicles, not for a niche market.”

As mass production nears, costs for many components that have been designed for the Volt are expected to fall sharply, by as much as 50%. The company hopes to sell the first-generation Volt for around US$30,000, putting it within the high range of compact cars.

The design will include the “building blocks” for future versions to incorporate an electric meter in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) applications.

Comparing the fuel costs between old and new methods of propulsion, GM estimated that driving costs in EV mode would be 2 cents per mile&mash;or 1 cent per mile if charged off-peak—compared to about 12 cents per mile per gallon of gasoline for a typical car today.

The company settled on a 40-mile all-electric range because it would cover daily driving of 78% of Americans, according to US Department of Transportation figures. Had GM picked 30 miles, it would have covered 68%; 20 miles would have covered 51%. When asked why GM didn’t start with 30, Weber smiled and responded “it’s easier to go from 40 to 30 than from 30 to 40.”

In light of the European Union’s proposed limitations of 120-130 grams/kilometer of CO2, the Chevy Volt (or the Opel Flextreme) will count as a 40 gm/km of CO2 vehicle, using current EU testing procedures. GM will publish a SAE technical paper on this subject early next year.

Project leaders reiterated their keen interest in developing methods to educate the public and manage expectations, to determine the best ways to present the total cost of ownership of PHEVs, and in the need to engage with a rapidly evolving public policy and economic landscape, including co-operation with utilities to explore such issues as secondary roles for vehicle battery packs.

Weverstad emphasized that the company still does not view PHEVs as the end-point, but rather expects to develop fuel cell cars because those vehicles offer “emission-free driving, long range, and a short refueling time”. As with Toyota at the LA Auto Show, both companies clearly still have some executives insisting on maintaining that dual emphasis.

Not all is rosy at GM: the striking styling of the Volt concept car has officially been nixed due to a poor coefficient of drag. At a briefing for bloggers, GM head Bob Lutz quipped to the media that “we probably would’ve gotten better drag coefficient if we put it in the wind tunnel backwards.

Last year, we were 90% committed to the Volt,” said Lutz. “Now, we’re totally committed.

Comments

marcus

This gives me hope. If anything can soften peak oil and reduce GHGs, it seems to me a PHEV mass produced by GM can.

Henrik

>> Al Weverstad quoted Bob Lutz, chairman of GM North America, who remarked in August that “breakthrough battery technology will drive future automotive propulsion, and the company that aligns with the best strategic partners will win.” <<

I would not be surprised to see GM pick both Compact Power/LG Chem and Continental/A123Systems as their suppliers. One of them is picked for the Volt project and the other for some of their other projects involving lithium ion batteries. Elsewhere I read that GM now says they will release a new hybrid car every quarter the next 4 years. That is a lot of batteries and with all the hybrids coming out from competitors as well the car producers are going to scramble to find enough production capacity for their demand. For instance, the Think EV is delayed only because they can’t find a battery supplier that will deliver in volume.

The best strategic battery partners are likely those that have a battery that is good enough (not necessarily the best) and that can increase production very fast (>200% growth a year) while at the same time reduce costs.

Jack

BLA BLA BLA.... get it done already! Way over due.

Aussie

If
1) the car is restyled to look like a Japanese compact
2) the 40m/65km all-electric range is halved
then the hype will vanish overnight, and maybe GM with it.

andrichrose

It is possible to make a stylish light car with a good drag coefficient,
think of the Audi A2 , 845kg (about 1900 lbs) fantastic drag coefficient
all aluminium construction , seem to last forever too ,would have made
a very good EV with minimum development to the company ,
But guess what , they don´t make them anymore !

MH

They're looking serious about the Volt. I hope people will buy it or else it will be the fodder for another conspiracy theory plot.

richard schumacher

"Flourine"? Did they mean "Fluorinert"? And even if the all-electric range slips to 30 miles the Volt will still be a huge advance.

Matthew

Something I've read elsewhere is that to keep that retail price down to $30,000, they will have to lease the battery packs to customers. There are certain advantages to this (the batteries remain the problem of GM, for example), but consumers may not get on board with buying part of their car, then leasing other parts of it, and then buying gas and electricity on top of that.

Felix Kramer

[HERE'S A SHORT SUPPLEMENTAL REPORT ON THE EVENT:]

During the Q&A, I (Felix Kramer from CalCars.org) emphasized that California could offer GM many unique opportunities to help ensure a successful commercialization, including regulatory agencies and partners among utilities, corporations and elected officials. I suggested that the company could explore new business and marketing models for the car and the car's batteries. And I proposed that a year before the vehicles' full launch, the company plan a California rollout, similar to GM's 100-vehicle national Project Driveway for fuel cell cars, but 10-100 times larger, to gain early experience and feedback.

In response, Weber confirmed the company is developing a group to work on external links and relationships. And Posawatz, saying my comments were "spot on," agreed that the project was now at points of technical development where these kinds of discussions would be helpful, including working both with California regulatory agencies and national regulators. He said the company recognized it had had some "rough false starts" in the past, and had to "earn its credibility back."

Posawatz pointed to the need for test procedures that match the car's characteristics, and proposed the vehicle have both a gasoline and electrical fuel economy label. He said he hoped that the EV community would not say "here you go again," but instead would "embrace it and say we hope this actually works out."

Schmeltz

Felix:
Thanks for the update. Glad to see how forthright GM has been about this extremely important vehicle. I'm also glad to read the suggestion for a sort of "Project Driveway" for the E-flex vehicles as they are currently doing for the fuel cell vehicles. Nothing beats real world testing. Sometimes things can look so darned good on paper, but when you get it out there in the real world, not so good. I personally would much rather wait for something that is worth the wait, as oppossed to something that was rushed to market only to find later the glaringly ugly flaws. And, lets face it, neither GM or the Plug-in movement need a black eye at this stage of the game.

Please continue to keep us informed!

toyo

Talk about irony. I remember many people proudly proclaiming that the Volt concept's styling was sleek and aero-efficient. I wonder where those people are now? Since the first time I saw the Volt I've said it looks like a brick and that it would have the aero efficiency of a brick. I was right. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that.

So now GM will be *forced* (by the laws of physics) to make the Volt look more like a Japanese car, which will work against them. The selling point of totally unique styling will no longer be present.

And I also remember GM proudly saying that the Volt would be available in early 2010. Now it's been moved to late 2010. Don't be surpised if more delays occur, and GM ends up with an overhyped and under-delivered product.

george k

“(Felix Kramer from CalCars.org) emphasized that California could offer GM many unique opportunities to help ensure a successful commercialization, including regulatory agencies and partners among utilities, corporations and elected officials...”

I hope GM understands what a golden opportunity this truly would be to partner with California, given the above. California could be a great success for the Volt!

“I proposed that a year before the vehicles' full launch, the company plan a California rollout, similar to GM's 100-vehicle national Project Driveway for fuel cell cars, but 10-100 times larger, to gain early experience and feedback.”

That certainly makes sense. For a “new from the ground up” auto, it would seem prudent to have some real world drivers out there doing things that the designers hadn’t anticipated.
And, I’d like to take this opportunity to officially volunteer for the job! Yes, I'm serious.

Tagamet

Toyo: Is that as in Toyota? Even if GM changes the styling, the major selling points remain - 40 miles AER and excellent range. The one thing that mosts inspires my hopes is that GM is being so transparent in the development of the Volt. In the past, they wouldn't have even announced a release date, let alone a DELAY in the release date. If GM isn't VERY serious about this project, the backlash from "the hopeful" will be tremendous. I'm still hoping that my next car will be a Volt.

Elliot

I was pretty excited about the Volt not being a vanilla looking vehicle, even though I really didn't love the design. I hope they still make it look good and don't ugly it up and then wonder why it didn't sell.

Since GM just "realized" how un-aerodynamic it is shows how eager they are to get something out in front of the public. Now the question is are the doing it to be a pacifier, or do they realize the huge SUV thing isn't sustainable?

Jack Rosebro

Richard is correct. I meant to reference Fluorinert, not Flourine (an element). My error.

AES

Suggestions for improving the aero:

1) Non-sunken headlights
2) Reduced grill area (not as much air cooling needed anyway). This was actually a major feature on the Flextreme concept.
3) Flared wheel arches have to go.

The general shape of the headlamps, and the long bonnet could stay, though. The hatchback-like little spoiler at the way back is probably an aero feature though - you see it on aero cars like the Prius and the Mercedes Benz Bionic.

Keep in mind that GM/Aeronvironment did the EV1 with the 0.19 Cd, so they're not novices. I'd like to see something 0.25 or below.

manny

This is the first time I hear about cooling in an EV. So, does this mean that EVs will be heated after all?

Manny, from Canada, the country with two seasons: winter and mosquitoes.

Andy

One of the things I love about the protoype shown above is its looks.

I love the long bonnet (hood) as it harks back to the muscle car days and is unlike most things on the market today (except all the modern muscle cars, obviously)

Its a pity that they may lose its distinctive looks. Here's hoping only minor tweaks will be needed and only then at the back end.

Andy

Ken

I will buy one at that price. I would even pay $10k more. I just can't do the full cost of the eBox. IF they build it, we will come.

Jim G.

Wow. It's amazing to me GM could spread word of these plans about for a whole year, with pictures of it, blueprints, even car bodies on the floor of the trade shows, yet they hadn't tested it in a wind tunnel? And not by a little-- Lutz is saying it would be better in the tunnel backwards! It seems very much like they just grabbed the nearest body design of some scrapped Buick somethingorother from the trash, had designers scribble together some stuff to give to marketing, all in time to dodge bullets coming via the release of "Who Killed the Electric Car". I won't be buying GM stock any time soon.

Patrick

The E-flex chassis won't need to be changed. The sheet metal will be. They threw something together that they felt was aesthetically pleasing.

I am willing to bet the non-aerodynamic Volt is a more accepted design than the very aerodynamic Aptera to the average person.

I am glad they didn't throw away any money on wind tunnel testing of a mock up and concentrated on the primary objective: their E-Flex chassis.

MGuy

I fail to see how GM's current ugliest-cars-in-existence styling constitutes a selling point. If the laws of physics force them to make something that looks more Japanese, that can only help them. (And whoever is doing their body design needs to be fired: they're causing an unacceptable drag on market share.)

Can GM afford to wait another three years to sell a car????????? What if the public has had enough waiting and don't buy GM in the mean time. I'm suprised one excuse hasen't been new technology radio freqancy to produce hydogen on-board as required with salt water as the fuel. Maybe they will tell us about that next year and delay further??????? The who can tell B___ S---
John Hamon
jeanlouis.hamon@sympatico.ca

Jim Baron

Car does not need to be ugly. The first thing in design is balance. Do not design a car that has huge head and small behind like the current design -- it looks like a rat.

I hope GM design team can take a look at RX8 see what is a balanced look. Then go from there.

Jim Baron

Correct a typo. The picture for RX8 is here

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