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Intrepidation

GM: Volt on track, Voltec battery progressing well, next-gen will be better

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There was one main message hammered home during a conference call on the Voltec plug-in hybrid propulsion system that GM held earlier today: even though the Chevy Volt is not yet finished, GM is getting the second and third generation Voltec systems ready. Sure, the GM representatives reassured us that the company is on track for a late-2010 launch of the Chevy Volt, all of the mentions of the Gen 2 and Gen 3 Voltec systems made it clear that GM is readying some surprises in their various battery labs and partner locations.

"We remain confident and committed to a November 2010 launch of the Chevy Volt."

A timetable for Gen 2 and beyond is not public at this time, but we do know that the Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains (ABCD) at the University of Michigan is one partner in this project (and on Gen 3). In general, the goal for these generations will be to reduce cost, not necessarily to add range or reduce the size of the packs.

The near-term schedule for the Volt program calls for actual prototypes (not the mules in the picture above) to be built this summer, and there will be a lot of them made. Announcements on consumer pricing and exactly how the battery's high price will be passed on to the end buyer will be unveiled when the Volt gets closer to market, but leasing or selling the battery are both still options. GM does have "a viable business proposition with the Volt," said Bob Kruse is the Executive Director for Global Hybrid, Electric Vehicle and Battery Engineering, but "this first-generation system is expensive." He added that government incentives (hello, $7,500?) will help make the first-generation vehicles an option for more people. As stated, next generation vehicles should be cheaper. GM's Denise Gray said that what happened to computers and electronics in the past few decades shows one likely way that technology in the Volt will get smaller and cheaper in the coming years.

As GM said last spring, the battery pack is designed to be part of the vehicle's structural rigidity. Andrew Farah, Volt Chief Engineer, told us that one of the first questions the Volt engineers needed to answer was whether to develop a battery around an existing vehicle or to develop a vehicle around an existing battery. The Volt team found that developing both together was the right balance. Start with the backbone of a traditional vehicle and go from there. "The trick to a great vehicle is balance," he said.

Using the battery as a structural device means that it's a tough device. In 35 mph crash tests involving the mules, the battery comes out pretty much without a scratch, GM said, and showed us the slides to prove it. There is a "very sophisticated system" in the vehicle, similar to the ground fault wiring in a house, that is meant to contain the energy inside the pack in the case of an accident.

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GM's January announcement that it would build the Volt's batteries in Michigan was part of a strategic choice to keep the "Volt Battery Value Chain," as they call it, streamlined and efficient. While the initial cells will be made by LG in Korea, Kruse said that moving the battery process in-house is intended to let GM control its own destiny. A big benefit is that subsequent battery and propulsion system generations will be able to be developed faster.

Kruse added that GM is still happy with what Voltec will be able to do once it's in the car and are "very bullish on the ability of the Volt technology to meet the needs of the mass market." While electric vehicles with ranges longer than 40 miles exist, "we've chosen to include the range extender" to eliminate range anxiety, he said. GM could have built a bigger battery, but those would weigh and cost more. "We balance the vehicle around these demographics," he said, referring to the 78 percent of Americans who drive less than 40 miles a day. Farah added that GM did not want to ask the customer to change their lifestyle. With the Volt, he said, people won't need to change any of their driving habits but they can still gain some independence from oil. This will be a car that can do what cars today can do, but with a 40-mile EV range. "Give them what they're used to," he said.

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Inside the Voltec's T-Pack battery are over 200 cells that are packed into modules and there are an unspecified number of modules in the T-Pack. While GM is still being quite secretive about what's in the pack, they will say that there is a long-term plan to use the technology developed for the Volt in many more vehicles. For example, the cells are reusable in a wide range of vehicles, the modules are reusable within a class of vehicles and the T-Packs are reusable within in a specific vehicle class. As for recycling the battery when it's reached the end of its life, the recyclability of the vehicle will be based on European recycling standards because they are stronger and GM is "only going to do this job once." Also, while GM is not worried about running out of lithium, Kruse noted that after the lithium has been used in a battery, it remains "highly reclaimable and recyclable."

Two other items that caught my ear:

  • The Volt's 40 mile range that GM touts is based on Federal standard tests that assume a temperature of 20°C (68°F)
  • Kruse said that battery swap plans for automobiles are "problematic" and GM thinks fast charging is a much better plan.
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Two other items that caught my ear:

  • The Volt's 40 mile range that GM touts is based on Federal standard tests that assume a temperature of 20°C (68°F)
  • Kruse said that battery swap plans for automobiles are "problematic" and GM thinks fast charging is a much better plan.

The 40 Mile range is apparently based somewhat on the federal city test. However GM has admitted that the 40 miles is with the AC turned off (the AC is turned on for portions of the federal tests). Aside from that and this 20C, I haven't heard what other things they tweaked to favour the Volt.

I do find it funny that the company that seemingly only talks about highway fuel economy for every other vehicle suddenly seems so interested in city fuel economy.

It sounds like we could expect the real-world combined electric range to be in the high 20's.

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