Will this plug-in serial-hybrid turn GM around?
Keith Naughton - Newsweek - Jan 7, 2007
Last month, Bob Lutz, General Motors' renowned car czar, stood before a room full of reporters and offered a stunning mea culpa. "A few years ago," he said, "we made a bad decision." That decision: GM failed to green light a hybrid car, even though it had the know-how and the technology left over from its failed EV1 electric car. Toyota, of course, made the opposite decision and today its Prius hybrid is the envy of the automotive world. "The value Toyota got out of the Prius, in terms of positioning themselves as the world technology leader, was incredible," bemoans Lutz. "Now we're in a position to play catch-up."
This week at the Detroit Auto Show, GM hopes to shock the car-buying public by unveiling its catch-up vehicle: The Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that GM says can go 150mpg or more. There's been plenty of buzz about plug-in hybrids over the last year. But so far there are no hybrids on the market that you can recharge by plugging into a wall outlet. Instead, today's hybrids recharge their batteries by capturing energy from braking. But the Volt is a different kind of hybrid. Unlike those on the market that are primarily powered by a small gasoline engine, this sexy little four-seater runs on pure electricity. The tiny three-cylinder gasoline engine under its hood is only used to recharge the batteries, never to turn the wheels. You can also recharge the Volt by plugging it into a standard socket for about six hours. By contrast, the 60mpg Prius can't be plugged in and only runs on pure electric power until it hits about 15mph. Then its small gasoline engine kicks in to supplement the electric motor. Other hybrids, like the Honda Civic, never run on pure electric power, but are driven by a blend of gasoline and kilowatts. Now, though, the race is on to have the first plug-in hybrid on the market.
While GM works on the Volt, the company has promised to have a plug-in version of its new Saturn Vue hybrid on the market by next year, though some technical experts are skeptical about that aggressive timing. The Vue hybrid now on the road isn't even as advanced as the Prius. The Vue is a "mild hybrid" that never runs on electric power, but gains most of its 25 percent fuel economy improvement from having a special system that shuts the engine off at stop lights and in stop-and-go traffic. The next-generation Vue will, like the Prius, be capable of running on electric power at low speeds. And GM says you'll be able to drive longer under electric power because you'll be able to recharge the batteries by plugging into your wall socket. Toyota and Ford are also working on plug-ins, but have not given a date for when they'll be available. Experts say plug-ins could take five years to develop, despite GM's promise.
When will the Volt arrive? GM won't say. It all depends on breakthroughs in battery technology. To power the Volt, GM wants to use lithium-ion batteries, which go farther on a charge than the nickel-metal hydride batteries now used in hybrids. But for now, lithium-ion batteries are mostly used in small applications, like your cell phone. Developing the 400-pound lithium-ion battery required to run the Volt could take five years, GM acknowledges. The roadblocks include making it affordable and safe. "Thermal runaway can be a problem," admits Volt chief engineer Nick Zielinski. Huh? That means lithium-ion batteries can overheat and set your car on fire.
Despite that, GM insists the Volt isn't just a PR ploy to show up Toyota at the hometown auto show. "This is no science-fair project," says GM vice president Jon Lauckner. "We're deadly serious about this."
If the Volt does hits the streets, here's how it will work: You'd plug your car into a regular 110-volt outlet in your garage every night. When you head off for work in the morning, you could go for 40 miles on pure electricity, without that little engine kicking in to recharge the batteries. So if your daily commute is under 40 miles, as is the case for most Americans, you'd never burn a drop of gas.
If you have a longer commute, the Volt then becomes the ultimate gas miser. Let's say you live 30 miles from your job, so your daily round-trip is 60 miles. That means the Volt will run 40 miles on pure electricity and 20 miles on kilowatts generated by its little gasoline engine. The net mileage: 150mpg. That is, unless you have some place to plug in while you're at work. That lithium-ion battery gets fully powered up in about six hours. So if you recharge while you work, you'll never burn any gas.
Sound too good to be true? It does to the Sierra Club, a persistent critic of GM's gas guzzlers, like the Hummer. "You'll pardon me if I'm slightly dubious," says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global-warming program. "Call me back when they actually produce the vehicle." Still, Becker says he likes the sound of the technology that powers the Volt. "It would be wonderful if this means GM finally intends to take on Toyota," he says. "But they've got to make it. Talking about it won't save the company or the environment."
GM was stung—and spurred on—by the drubbing it took in last summer's documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The film laid the blame at GM's doorstep, saying it never supported its fledgling EV1 that became a darling of Left Coast enviros in the '90s. But the tiny two-seater never caught on with the general public because after driving it for 60 to 90 miles, you had to stop and recharge it for eight hours. By contrast, even if you forgot to plug-in the Volt, you could go 640 miles between fill-ups and get 50mpg with the engine charging the batteries, GM says. This technology sounds so tantalizing, GM's biggest risk is not delivering on it. Says Becker, "Then the sequel to the movie is 'Who Didn't Build the Volt?
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