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How GM made Volt a reality


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How GM made Volt a reality

Carmaker learned from failed EV1, charted different course than rivals

Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

Long before the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors designed a groundbreaking electric car, the EV1, and learned from that experience it doesn't always pay to be ahead of the pack.

GM built EV1s for only three years, pulling the plug in 1999 after losing $1 billion.

But five years later, GM executives were bristling at the acclaim being heaped on Toyota Motor Corp. and its Prius gas-electric hybrid. "I was getting sick of it," said Bob Lutz, then GM's chief product strategist.

Emulating Toyota by making hybrids was out of the question. Lutz's idea to develop a new electric car was roundly rejected, too. But GM had to come up with something to counter the impression that the Detroit automaker was content to churn out Hummers and other guzzlers, oblivious to the debates about climate change and energy security.

Drawing on lessons learned from the EV1 and its experience with batteries, GM carved its own path to design the Chevrolet Volt. Describing it as an extended-range electric car, GM will mark the official start of the Volt's production Tuesday at the Hamtramck plant near downtown Detroit.

GM shuns the term "plug-in hybrid," saying that the Volt is neither a traditional hybrid nor an electric car, but combines some of their best characteristics in an elaborately engineered vehicle that's unlike any other. The result, executives say, is a car that's as convenient as it is fuel-efficient.

But with Nissan Motor Co. launching a zero-emission, all-electric Leaf car, and Ford Motor Co. and other rivals working on electrics, GM may appear to be behind the curve. Privately, some executives say the company became skittish about being first with new technology after the flop of the EV1.

As with any new technology, the market will decide ultimately what sells. And the Volt and Leaf may both succeed. Both models will benefit from a $7,500 federal tax credit, as well as state credits.

"We're in this 'Let a thousand flowers bloom' mode with advanced technology cars," said Steven Rattner, former White House adviser on the auto bailout. "GM has a vision, Nissan's got a vision, everybody's got a vision, and everybody's got a powerful argument why their vision is right."

Rattner, who spoke recently in Detroit, said the government didn't try to influence GM's technology choices. "We stayed out of all that stuff."

No 'range anxiety' with Volt

In the near future, forecasting firm J.D. Power and Associates expects plug-in hybrids to outsell electric cars in the United States.

Plug-in hybrid sales are forecast to reach 145,000 in 2015, compared with 90,000 all-electric car sales, said Mike Omotoso, senior manager of powertrain research at J.D. Power in Troy.

The Volt and Leaf are just now going on sale, but already fans and naysayers have formed camps on the blogosphere. Electric car skeptics say batteries are less reliable and versatile than internal combustion engines.

Today's batteries may be much more powerful than those in the EV1 and other electric cars of the past, but they still offer a limited range. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the Leaf's range at 73 miles.

Batteries also take a long time to charge, and need chargers. "There's no such thing as a 5-gallon can of electricity," Lutz said.

The Volt's critics say its technology is complicated and expensive. Excluding tax rebates, the Volt costs $41,000 — $8,000 more than the Leaf. And it can't claim, like the Leaf, to be a zero-emission car.

But GM executives say they're confident the Volt provides what consumers want. "We like to say that the Volt can be used anywhere, anytime," said Tony Pasowatz, vehicle line director.

For the first 35 miles, the Volt can run on electricity alone, but it has a 1.4-liter engine to top up the 400-pound battery. The EPA estimates its total range at 379 miles.

That combination eliminates "range anxiety," the fear of being stranded with a dead battery, which is the biggest drawback of electric cars.

GM engineers know that feeling, having experienced it with EV1s in the 1990s. "They'd start sweating when they'd get down to that last bar of electricity — 'I'm not going to make it home,'" said Bob Boniface, design director for the Volt.

The EV1 won a small but deeply loyal following of people who felt betrayed when GM stopped leasing it. The 2006 cult documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" was very critical of GM.

But GM couldn't solve the issues of the EV1's battery cost and limitations. Even now, the battery pack accounts for between a third and half the price of Tesla Motors Inc.'s $109,000 electric roadster, before tax credits.

Just as GM was winding down the EV1, Toyota and Honda Motor Co. were rolling out hybrids powered by gas and electric motors.

Hybrid cars save on fuel by capturing braking and other energy to recharge the battery powering the electric motor. Their crucial advantage is that they don't require drivers to modify their behavior.

GM introduced hybrid technology in buses in 2003 and in big SUVs and trucks. But it never reaped the public relations benefits that were heaped on Toyota, whose Prius was swishing up to red carpets in Hollywood.

In 2004, after Toyota launched a stylish second-generation Prius, Lutz suggested that GM develop an all-electric concept car powered by advanced lithium-ion batteries. They were lighter and more compact than nickel-metal hydride batteries, which are used in Toyota's and other hybrids.

Lutz hadn't been at GM during the EV1 era, but other managers, including GM's chairman and CEO, were still smarting from the experience. "Rick Wagoner said, 'We lost $1 billion on the last e-car we did. Do you really want to do this again, Bob?'"Lutz backed down — until he read that Tesla, a startup, was building an electric car with lithium-ion batteries. "Then I really got mad," Lutz said. "How come a small California company can do an electric car with lithium-ion batteries, and the world's smartest automobile company, GM, says it's impossible?"

GM executives spoke with Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhardt, who described the difficulty they had making the roadster.

Jon Lauckner, former head of product development who now heads GM's venture unit, came up with the concept for the Volt.

Instead of installing a big expensive battery pack to power the car, Lauckner proposed having a smaller, more affordable battery delivering a 40-mile range with a small engine to recharge it.

GM's engineers had applied such a system at their Milford proving ground to keep the EV1 batteries charged. "They had a little trailer that had a gasoline engine and a generator on it that could extend the range of the EV1s," Boniface said. "That's where the idea came from."

When the concept was outlined to the engineers and designers working on the project, "there was a sigh of relief," Boniface said. "We'd spent a lot of money on a vehicle that wasn't ready for prime time."

Larry Burns, then head of research and a fervent advocate of fuel cell technology, took the project to GM's automotive strategy board for approval in 2006.

Getting back in the game

"We had to do something to get back in the game," said Burns, professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the Roundtable on Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University. "Toyota had done a good job with the Prius, and fuel cells were too far out in the future."

At the 2007 North American International Auto Show, GM rolled out a sleek Chevrolet Volt concept car that drew as much skepticism as it did praise.

GM's archrivals, Toyota and Ford, are now developing their own plug-in hybrids. GM, meanwhile, is already working on the second-generation Volt.

"Everybody said it was junk, and it won't work," said Lutz. "But now they're all doing it."

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101129/AUTO01/11290336/How-GM-made-Volt-a-reality#ixzz16gIk3ufA

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