GM’s director for its European electric vehicle implementation has told just-auto that the development schedule for its Opel/Vauxhall Ampera extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV – the same technology as that being employed for the Chevrolet Volt) is on track.

“Everything has gone according to plan,” said Gherardo Corsini.

Production of the Opel Ampera for Left-Hand Drive (LHD) European markets is slated to start in late 2011. Right-Hand Drive (RHD) Vauxhall-badged versions for the UK market are due to start production at the beginning of 2012.

“We are on course for the final testing and validation of prototypes to take place in 2010,” Corsini said.

Opel engineers have installed the Ampera’s ‘Voltec’ electric propulsion system – including the battery, motor, engine and electric-generator – inside the body of an existing production car (a Chevrolet Cruze – same size as the Astra). They call this kind of development car a ‘mule’ because, like their namesake animals, the mules are a mixture of two species. Mule cars helps engineers test technology at an early stage of vehicle development.

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Specifically, engineers in Russelsheim are testing the Voltec system’s performance and the overall driving impression. In addition, engineers in Mainz-Kastel have developed and are further testing the lithium-ion battery. 

The Ampera is being developed in three distinct phases. The first stage involves the engineering development vehicles, which are used to analyse the behaviour of specific subsystems and get them to work together. These are not complete vehicle tests but work to prove individual subsystems.

In the next phase, integration cars are built with all of the systems coming together. They contain a lot of hand built parts, but are ‘design intent’. In the final development stage cars look and operate for all intents and purposes nearly exactly the same as the production cars. This phase brings everything together. All the final aero- and wind tunnel work can be done with them. They are the last phase before production.

Corsini is upbeat about the impact the car will have in the market.

“This is an exciting and innovative solution in providing mobility for the future,” he says.

“And we are taking electric vehicle mobility beyond the niche to offer it in a full-size four-door sedan rather than simply a city car – we can achieve that in our package because the extended range offered in the package we have developed provides an attractive mobility solution at lower cost [per distance travelled] and better performance than a pure electric vehicle can.”

Corsini emphasises the significance of the Ampera being able to appeal to households as the ‘main’ car. 

“The Ampera is a practical, electric four-seater, with cargo space and the capability to be the first automobile in the household,” Corsini says.

Unlike a conventional battery-electric vehicle, the Ampera eliminates ‘range anxiety’ (the range is 60km/40 miles ‘unassisted’ on a full battery charge) because the battery can be charged via an on-board engine – a 1.4L unit. The engine acts as a generator and does not drive the wheels – unlike, say, the set-up in a Toyota Prius ‘parallel’ hybrid that has two powertrains; range-extenders in which the electric motor always drives the wheels are also known as ‘series hybrids’.

When the battery’s energy is low, electricity from the engine-generator extends the Ampera’s range to more than 500km/340 miles. A gasoline/E85-fuelled engine-generator seamlessly provides electricity to power the electric drive unit while simultaneously sustaining the charge of the battery.

This mode of operation extends the range to 500km until the battery can be charged by plugging the vehicle’s on-board charge system into a standard household 230v/13 amp outlet.

Here’s a big question. How long does it take to fully charge the battery? GM says just three hours. Yes folks, three hours on a regular 13A socket at 230v; no need for a fancy booster to get a ‘fast charge’. Forty miles on a three hour charge time sounds remarkably good and has been arrived at by developing the battery to a certain size and capacity – compromises facilitated by the knowledge that this is a range extender, so they didn’t have to max out on battery size to eke out a higher range number as you might on a pure EV.

Opel estimates that an electrically driven kilometre in the Ampera will cost about one-fifth compared to a conventional gasoline vehicle at current fuel prices. Corsini told British journalists that a full charge from ’empty’ will cost about 80p in electricity used.

The Ampera will initially be made in the US alongside the Volt at a dedicated facility where GM is concentrating production for its high-tech range-extenders. The cheap dollar and the high cost of the new technology may well mean that GM is in no hurry to migrate Ampera production to Europe. But much could depend on how governments approach incentives. Indeed, the UK government has made little secret of the fact that it would like to see Ampera production eventually taking place at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant that currently makes the Astra.

Another big question is how much will this car cost the customer to buy? Again, the potential role of government incentives to kick-start the market makes things fluid. But the high cost of this technology means that there will be a premium to pay and it will be bigger at the start. Volumes will be low to begin with. There are many demand- and supply-side factors and variables that will come into play in determining how quickly Ampera volume can rise and unit cost come down. Maybe bulk sales to fleets or leased batteries offer a way to progress more quickly to critical volume mass, but there is obviously a lot of uncertainty, still, about price-points (Carl-Peter Forster once told me EUR40,000) and how this car plays out in the market.

There is also the question of the rate at which battery charging infrastructure will develop for plug-ins more generally, callibrated to patterns of use (workplace charging, for example) and numbers of plug-in vehicles actually on the road and projected to be.  

Like the parallel hybrids that Toyota and others have developed, the ‘range-extender’ (or series hybrid) addresses electric battery technology performance limitations that are proving stubborn to alleviate. We seem to be in the realm of slow incremental improvements to lithium-ion battery performance without a major technical ‘breakthrough’ visible on the horizon.

Plug-in hybrid (or range-extender) charging takes the vehicle a step-closer to being ‘electric’ because the car can be charged via the national grid without the need for hydrocarbons on short journeys. The fact that Toyota has now developed a plug-in Prius hybrid perhaps shows which way the wind is blowing. (And let’s please leave the ultimately thorny CO2 issue of the juice that comes from the power station for another day…).

The engineers will no doubt argue over the technical merits of the different solutions to overcome range anxiety while delivering acceptably lower CO2 and higher efficiency per mile. Toyota has put a lot of investment into its hybrids and has had a measure of success in delivering a low CO2 solution that is both proven and practical.

However, one potentially highly significant data metric is this. The Ampera/Volt will get you 40 miles (about 65km) on pure electric drive after a full battery charge, but Toyota’s new plug-in Prius will manage just 13 (21km). GM could be onto something.

Dave Leggett

See also:

LA SHOW: Toyota launches Prius plug-in hybrid

LA SHOW: California first in line for Chevy Volt