The distinguishing characteristic of a new-generation electric car is the seamless, soaring acceleration from standstill. The performance of GM in getting the Chevy Volt out on the street is looking much the same.
Initially the Volt was at a standstill while the doubters and naysayers forecast disaster. The lithium ion battery technology was most derided. It had so many connections of small cells that something would fail. It would be too heavy. There could be no place to put all those batteries without intruding on the car’s capacity. It would be so expensive that no-one would buy it.
Then the organisation fell to work, shoulders were applied to the wheel, the project gathered pace then shot off like a startled rabbit. Its currently coasting gently to its final destination.
GM have a man at the heart of all this endeavour who has been a battery buff for 20 years and is now manager in the Global Systems Battery Engineering Group. He lives in a parallel universe of EVs, HEVs (hybrids) and most importantly EREVs which are extended range electric vehicles. The Volt is one such.
Joe LoGrasso (it’s an Italian name and the original owner must have been a bit of a porker according to Joe’s translation) has to have all his ducks in a row sufficient to ensure that Volts flow from GM’s factories at the end of the year. Early in 2012 there will be a version called Vauxhall Ampera for import to the UK.
LoGrasso now has an answer for every question and he delivers them calmly and in the fashion of a man who can no longer be caught off-guard.
Lithium? Plenty of it. Known reserves of 150 million metric tonnes – mostly in South America and in salt beds. The extravagant way to produce it is to extract it from sea-water. “We have looked hard at lithium from the strategic point of view and have not bought forward.” That’s an invitation to hedge funds if ever there was one. There are actually bigger strategic issues than lithium – magnets in particular.
Decrepitation of batteries? Lovely word. “The connections have had 300,000 hours of testing and all possible abusive conditions of temperature and vibration.” The connections are not an issue. Three cells are connected in parallel so that one failure merely shifts load to the other two. GM reckons there is quite an art in that, and presents them with a major competitive advantage.
Standardisation? No. The batteries are a structural item in the Volt. They are loaded from beneath into a T-shaped housing beneath the rear seats and along the spine of the car. There is no chance of sharing these batteries with Nissan for example. “Everyone would love to standardise but it is not going to happen yet.”
Sufficient range? Forty miles and that will be fine. Few Americans stray more than 20 miles from home on a regular basis and 40 miles covers 80% of commuters. There will still be a 40 mile range on the original batteries after 100,000 miles and 10 years, though very hot batteries or batteries that stay full for a long time do decay faster.
Danger in pioneering? “Who comes out first wins. Development cycles will be five years. There are big cooling and vibration issues every time you put a battery pack in a different car. The amount of integration engineering is not trivial. We will stay ahead because people now see us as the successful pioneers and bring new ideas to us. What will we have in our third generation? I hope it has not been invented yet.”
Volume? “Depends on better cost. If we can’t have cheaper batteries I can’t sell more than 100,000 cars. There’s interdependency. To have cheap cars we need to sell a lot of them.”
Efficiency? “If batteries became more efficient we would not increase the range. We would decrease the number of batteries.”
Compromises? There are choices to make. If you have full-on air-con, right-up sound system and plugged in rechargers you are not going to get 40 miles. But there will be a push button on the dash that allows you to chose either inconvenience over distance, or comfort for a brief spell.
Certification? Government approvals require the car to be measured at its worst. So the range is calculated with all the secondary power demand at work, and the ability for the car to start the on-board, get-you-home, petrol range-extender must be measured when the car is accelerating at maximum speed on electric power.
The petrol engine will never be used by the man who is devoted to his greenery, but GM proposes to have it on-board despite the naysayers who dismiss it as missing the point. But it will only cost GBP800 to fit, will be less than 2% of the sticker price and will extend the range to 600 miles.
What’s not to like?