Building the 2011 Chevy Volt
By Sam Boni
With little more than two years to go to before they are expected in showrooms; can they do it? You know it takes seven years to get a new car ready for production; General Motors is hustling to get their first “E-Flex” plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Volt, ready in less than five years. Oh, and this vehicle will feature new technology never used in a production car before.
Earlier this year, some automotive journalists (unfortunately, not us) were given a rare chance by GM some time ago to get an inside peek into their design studio. Working in a separate area from the main design area, a small team of 45 designers, stylists and engineers spend all their time solely on the Volt. They are trying to keep ‘car czar’ Bob Lutz’s promise of the 2010 year-end time frame for the Volt’s production start-up alive.
The Volt’s story began at a brainstorming session in January 2006; new vehicles for the next decade were imagined, discussed and discarded. Prior to the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” being released, Bob Lutz imagined a new type of electric vehicle, different than the infamous EV1. It should be able to fulfill most people’s commuter needs, but also be able to take a longer trip than the battery alone would allow.
Much progress had been made since the EV1 vehicles were crushed. For one, GM had presented an extremely popular concept in 2004, reminiscent of the 1950s’ famous Nomad station wagon, only smaller. What if the envisioned car would look similar to the new Nomad, could commute in city traffic on battery power and use a small engine for overland trips? — Not a hybrid like any other, but different.
The limited range of the previous electric vehicle was not acceptable, nor was its 1,200 pounds of battery weight. The new Lithium-Ion batteries showed promise; but to date, they were only used in small appliances and still had some problems. A comparable car battery could store four times the electrical energy than the familiar lead-acid type, but weigh only in the 300 pound range.
Trouble was that type of battery did not exist.
Undaunted, the design team started to develop the “new and improved” – should we call it EV2? In less than one year, the model makers had a car ready that earned rave reviews at the 2007 auto shows: this time, however the name ‘Volt’ was used.
Encouraged by the public’s perception, General Motors realized they had more than just another concept car in their hands — they might have a best-seller if they could shepherd it into production. GM awarded development contracts to two companies for large Lithium-Ion batteries soon after. By mid-2008, different batteries were being tested around the clock in current production cars rigged with an electric motor. Laboratory test were also being conducted to ensure that the battery will endure the discharge and re-charge cycles over 10 years or about 150,000 miles. “Not all lithium technology is the same,” explained Andy Farah, Volt’s chief engineer; A number of different chemistry combinations are being tested.
In the meantime, back at the small, special design center, the Volt, in the shape it was seen at the auto shows, was experiencing some nips and tucks. “We are now in the midst of a new period of aero exploration,” Ed Welburn, GM’s chief of design, admitted at the time. “There has been a significant effort by all our program teams to improve fuel economy thru aerodynamics, and now to extend the range of electric vehicles for the future.”
For smoother air flow, the Volt’s front fenders have been rounded off and the curved rear is more edgy and angular; the flat roof has a more pronounced curve now. Chevrolet chief designer Bob Boniface explained that the aerodynamic drag of the concept car has been cut by 30 percent at this stage, but he insists “It has to be true to the show car.”
That was then, this is now. Unfortunately, it no longer looks as exciting as the “2006 Volt car”: the Beauty has been turned into Beast; a production-line beast, looking more like most other cars. But, as they say, beauty is only skin-deep – it’s the underneath that counts. And that is what we are counting on: charging ahead to lower pollution, fuel consumption and elevating the prestige of the American auto industry to previous levels again.
When the Volt is being driven, the engine only cuts in to power the generator when the battery reaches a certain point of discharge. By mid-2008, hundreds of engineers are preparing every minute detail to get the first plug-in hybrid (PHEV) ready for mass production. GM’s goal is to have the Volt drive 65 km (40 miles) on battery power alone, before the engine starts. Many drivers may never use a drop of gasoline when they only commute a short distance and plug it in overnight. The Volt’s top speed is limited to 160 km/h, 0-100 km/h (62 mph) takes a scant 8.5 seconds, and its flex-fuel engine can use gasoline or ethanol. With the market’s volatility, the ‘Volt’ can not come soon enough.
Every other car maker is working on similar technology to reduce fuel consumption and with that CO2 emission. To stay in business, carmakers are preparing for the new age of clean, sustainable transportation. The billion dollar question that the Volt generates is whether it will be too expensive for consumers when it hits the market in late 2010, and whether it will be upstaged by less expensive competitors that have been springing up on the newswire for the past few months.
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