General Motors plans to launch its electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, by the end of 2010 despite scepticism at GM about that target, its chief of global product development told Reuters.

As the race to bring a mass-market, rechargeable electric vehicle to the market heats up, GM’s Bob Lutz said employees working on the Volt “are becoming increasingly nervous.”

“There is a lot of scepticism within the company about the timeline,” Lutz said at the Reuters Autos Summit in Detroit. “People are biting their nails, but those of us in a leadership position have said it has to be done.”

Lutz said the Volt plug-in hybrid – which GM plans to road-test early next year and produce by late 2010 – is crucial to GM’s efforts to snag the environmental technology crown from rival Toyota Motor.

“When people think of Toyota, their iconic brand is the Prius,” Lutz said.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData
Visit our Privacy Policy for more information about our services, how we may use, process and share your personal data, including information of your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications. Our services are intended for corporate subscribers and you warrant that the email address submitted is your corporate email address.

“When they think of GM, the iconic brand is, unfortunately, the Hummer,” he added. “That perception needs to change.”

GM is the only automaker to have provided a firm timeline on production even though other companies, such as Ford and Toyota, are working on similar technology.

“We have to re-establish GM’s leadership and the Volt is, frankly, an effort to leapfrog anything that is done by any other competitor,” Lutz said.

Unlike earlier petrol-electric hybrids, which run on a system that twins battery power and a combustion engine, plug-ins are designed for short trips powered entirely by an electric motor and a battery charged through a socket at home.

Toyota’s prototype Prius hybrid plug-in has a larger nickel metal hydride battery pack than the current production models and can therefore run a greater distance on electric power alone, while the petrol engine recharges the battery pack when required on a journey, or when no electric power outlet is handy. Toyota is still deciding on which type of battery technology to use in production cars using this new hybrid technology.

At the Reuters summit, Lutz said GM regrets its decision not to build a hybrid car when Toyota launched its game-changing Prius in 1997.

“We kind of lost the first couple of laps of the green car race,” Lutz said, saying they couldn’t go to GM’s board “for a multi-hundred-million programme that was going to lose money.”

With the Prius, Toyota controls about 80% of the market for hybrids in the United States.

“We have since realised that letting Toyota gain that mantle of green respectability and technology leadership has really cost us dearly in the marketplace,” Lutz said.

GM is designing the Volt to run 40 miles on battery power alone, with an on-board petrol-powered engine as a backup.

Prototype Prius plug-ins just-auto drove in Japan last month had an electric-only range of about 10km (6 miles), according to Toyota development engineers.

Reuters said GM’s Volt would be outfitted with new lithium-ion battery packs, which hold a charge longer than the nickel metal hydride batteries now used widely in vehicles.

Toyota is expected to use lithium-ion packs in the Prius plug-in hybrid. This version is expected to go into production during the model life of the third generation cars, probably around 2011, Toyota Motor Europe executive vice president and chief operating officer Thierry Dombreval told just-auto in Tokyo last month.

Reuters noted that automakers say lithium-ion technology remains the biggest challenge in producing a plug-in as they try to lower the cost of the batteries and boost their power and storage capacity.

Also, the current generation of lithium-ion batteries, used in devices like laptop computers, have a tendency to overheat.

Toyota executives have said they do not expect lithium-ion batteries to be ready for use in the company’s market-leading Prius hybrid by GM’s 2010 timetable, the news agency added.

GM is testing lithium-ion battery technology developed by its two suppliers – A123 Systems and Compact Power, a subsidiary of South Korea’s LG Chem . But Lutz said GM needs to invest more in battery development internally.

GM already has a patent attorney assigned to the Volt to make sure the company keeps hold of rights to the technology.

“I’m convinced we can do the Volt and put it on the road, but if we want a commanding and permanent lead on this type of vehicle … we have to control the intellectual property,” Lutz told Reuters.

“Otherwise it will propagate to other manufacturers too quickly.”