GM Plugs In with Hybrid Concept, Part 2

7 Feb, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

The automaker's new powertrain is on the right track for putting electric vehicles into common use

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story about a concept car I saw in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. That car was the Chevrolet Volt, an electric/gasoline hybrid that I found very interesting. I felt, and feel, that it is too early to write off electric vehicles that can be plugged into an electrical outlet for recharging their batteries in the garage overnight.

Well, a reader took issue with me, saying that the Volt was nothing but a parlor trick and that GM wasn't doing anything for consumers interested in purchasing and driving hybrid vehicles. This week, I want to clarify some issues surrounding the Volt and GM's stance on hybrid vehicles. For the record, although I am from the Detroit area and spend a considerable amount of time there, I am not and never have been an employee of or consultant to General Motors. I'm just an interested observer of the technology.

Admittedly, GM is not alone in its seemingly resurging interest in plug-in hybrids, as Ford, Toyota, Honda and Nissan are also devoting considerable R&D money to them as well, although none of them has yet committed to production. This new generation of plug-in hybrids is decidedly better than those of the past, especially in regards to driving range before a recharge is required. The extended range comes largely from what is called a series hybrid powertrain -- a system with an electric motor that drives the wheels without assistance from an internal combustion engine. Today, the most common powertrain is known as a parallel hybrid system that uses both an electric motor and a gasoline engine to drive the wheels -- the Toyota Prius is an example of this model.

There have been pure electric cars, and GM's EV1 was probably the most famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) example. Although totally retired earlier this decade, the EV1 was a purpose-built electric vehicle, not a conversion of an existing vehicle or drive train. Other issues aside, like all pure electric vehicles, the EV1's biggest drawback was the fact that when its batteries discharged, it had to be plugged in to be recharged -- a process that took several hours. Not very attractive for a cross-country drive with the family in tow.

The Volt is different in that it has a small gasoline engine that runs a generator, which recharges the vehicle's batteries when their charge gets low to get the vehicle home where it can be fully recharged by plugging it in. But before delving more into the Volt, let's take a brief look back in time at GM's hybrid history.

A Little Hybrid History

GM first introduced hybrid technology for mass transit buses in 2003, and in 2004 it introduced its first hybrid pickup trucks. Today, GM continues to roll out its hybrid portfolio, as well as planning for more hybrid vehicles in the next few years. These vehicles will come equipped with one of three different hybrid systems designed to meet different driving patterns and needs.

GM's current and planned hybrid vehicles include:

• 2006 Chevrolet Silverado Classic and 2006 GMC Sierra Classic
• 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line
• 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe and 2008 GMC Yukon
• Mass transit buses.

Producing hybrid vehicles is one piece of GM's three-part strategy to improve fuel economy and reduce vehicle emissions, along with improving the efficiency of the traditional internal combustion engine, while developing hydrogen fuel cell and other types of alternatively powered vehicles. From the beginning of its involvement, GM has applied hybrid technology to high-volume and high-fuel-consumption vehicles first and it ultimately plans to build 12 different hybrid vehicle models. Will the Volt be among them?

Likelihood for Production

Although the Volt is still a concept car, GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz said it is a good bet that it will make it to production around 2010 -- if the technology behind its electric power source, lithium ion batteries, evolves sufficiently. Because the future of the Volt is almost totally dependent on the development of a reliable, efficient, durable and safe lithium ion battery technology, GM realizes it can't go it alone. Knowing this, it has awarded contracts to two suppliers to produce them -- a joint venture of Johnson Controls and French battery manufacturer Saft; and a second joint venture, Cobasys. Awarding these contracts is the first indication that GM is serious about actually taking the Volt, or some incarnation of it, to production.

Another positive indication is that Bob Lutz declared that the Volt was being developed as a "production intent" vehicle. Although still officially a concept car, the Volt already has a chief engineer and vehicle line director in place -- not a common practice for a vehicle still in the concept stage. Finally, the Volt sits on GM's Delta platform that is also used for the Pontiac G5 and the Chevrolet Cobalt. So, does all this mean that the Volt is destined for production? Honestly, no, but the indications are leaning in favor of it happening.

Beyond development considerations, is there a real market now for plug-in vehicles? I have to say yes (cautiously), because in 2006 more than 250,000 hybrids of all types were sold in the United States. But, as we've seen in the past, there's no guarantee that even the best technologies will sell. I am optimistic, however, that all vehicle manufacturers, including GM, pondering or intent on producing a plug-in hybrid have learned from the past as they look to the future.

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