“Much of the gas [petrol] is in what can only be politely described as unstable regions of the world.” It was with that observation that GM’s Bob Lutz introduced the Chevrolet VOLT to the watching press at the Detroit Auto Show.

The off-the-cuff remark was notable in that it contrasted quite sharply with concern about the environment being quietly expressed by auto industry executives elsewhere.

If fuel shortages fairly represent the principal concern at senior levels in GM, then it does make greater sense of what Lutz said moments later: “This is the most exciting programme I have been involved in during my automotive career. It is ground-breakingly different.”

Journalists around the room exchanged the sort of glances that are reserved for presenters who take a step too close to PR hype. Surely the 73-year-old, who launched cars for Ford, Chrysler, GM and BMW over fifty years and flew USAF fighters in the Korean War, has had a bit more excitement in his life than a plug-in electric car?

If he really believes however, that he is required to save America from the day when everyone in the world with oil refuses to hand over any more to the common foe, then maybe he really can get a buzz from his Chevrolet Volt. Worth having a word with the Scots for his own personal needs though. They’re still on-side allegedly.

Whatever the motivation, this GM “ground-breaker” is something of a surprise. Just when we thought that the novelty value of hybrids was played out (GM alone will have eight in production by the end of next year), here comes another car with both electric and petrol motors. If GM is determined to innovate, why the volte-face on the road to fuel cells? Don’t we all now expect to be able to run a car by extracting hydrogen from a basin of pure water?

The Volt has a three-cylinder turbo-charged gasoline engine to charge the battery, in addition to the electric engine whose responsibility is solely to drive the front wheels. This is how the GM initiative starts to sound like a hybrid which is by now a common technology and one sold most famously in cars such as the Toyota Prius. The essential difference is that a hybrid can be driven by either an electric or a combustion engine. The Chevy Volt is driven only by electric.

The classic objection to the hybrid technology is that its total carbon footprint shows humanity no net benefit. It is laden with nickel batteries that are horrid things to produce in environmental terms, and the total additional energy cost of manufacturing duplicate power packs means that the machine is hard-pressed over a lifetime of operating savings to show any net environmental benefit.

This is the heart of the argument for Volt. It is simple and therefore will be comparatively cheap to build, and it is a foundation product that can then be developed in a number of ways. The “generator” engine does not have to be carbon fuelled; there is already a safe site designed into the car for a hydrogen tank. Equally, it can be bio-fuelled. Or the whole of the on-board regeneration responsibility can be taken over by fuel cells. GM is calling the variety of production options the “E-flex” family.

The Volt will drive about 40 miles on pure electric power. GM picked that distance because Department of Transportation studies show that 78% of US commuters travel no more than 40 miles a day to work and back. On that travel pattern alone, the owner would save US$900 a year in fuel costs with gas at US$2.40 a gallon. The addition to the home electric bill would be about US$300. In the normal mode of driving during the day and recharging at night, the electric charge can be taken at off-peak rates. GM claims that it would be a long time before the electric generation industry would be overwhelmed by demand as it has plentiful spare capacity at night.

The interesting moment arrives however, when the tax authorities focus on the lost revenue from motor spirit and find a way of trapping the motorists who have dropped through the tax net. For the period where the governments of the world go on wearing their green credentials rather than bemoaning revenue loss, they will focus on the annual 4.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide that is “saved” by using electricity.

GM has been here before. It has already sold the EV1 electric car which was both unattractive in appearance and unsuccessful commercially. The principal objections were that the batteries took up so much space that it could only be a two-seater; the “quick” recharge was eight hours, not six; and although the range was closer to 90 miles in favourable conditions, there was no on-board recharge facility.

In terms of performance, the two-seater could only manage acceleration to 60mph in 10 seconds and a top speed of 80mph. The Volt shaves 1.5 seconds from the acceleration time and peaks at 120mph.

The prototype shown at the Detroit show was extremely pretty, a full four-seater and in the size range of the Vauxhall-Opel Astra. Because the petrol engine does not have to drive the wheels, the front wheels can be moved right forward and allows designers an unusually sleek front profile for a small car.

No-one is saying when the car will be produced but Lutz did tell us in interview that he was working internally to the tempo of a 2010 launch. He also said that he would very much like the lithium battery technology that the car employs to become an industry standard. At the moment, GM is shouldering the entire cost of lithium being developed to be sufficiently robust to be the power source. The whole assembly is only as strong as the weakest lithium cells. If the cell fails, or the wiring that links all of them together, there is no roadside fix or get-you-home back up.

That is why GM will not say when the car goes on sale. It won’t even say for sure that it is going to build them because the lithium challenge could beat the GM task force. They think it unlikely though.

“Technologically, there is no wizardry here. If this thing works we see no reason why it should not be an industry standard,” Lutz said. The only GM intellectual property that is being protected is the electronic control. Lutz agrees that he would actually enjoy other makers driving up the volume and driving down the cost of lithium.

He would no doubt also like to see a lobby that stops the legislators trying to derive tax revenues from electric cars – and starts them building more nuclear power.

Rob Golding

See also: DETROIT SHOW: Volt concept is EV1 successor