ELECTRIC CAR: The Chevy Volt runs entirely on electricity. A rechargeable battery powers it for the first 40 miles; an internal combustion engine generates electricity for longer trips. Image: Courtesy of GM
A single component will make or break Chevrolet's new Volt "extended-range electric vehicle"—and with it, potentially, the fate of America's largest carmaker, General Motors: its battery. It's no wonder then that some GM executives call the Volt's battery "our diva." After all, the new lithium-based pack provides the essential spark that makes the new design go in more ways than one—from its green performance and driving range, right down to its wind-cheating looks.
"Not only is the battery all-important to running the car, it is supremely sensitive to its environment and to how it is operated…almost to the point that we think of it as a living thing," says Frank Weber, Chevy Volt vehicle line executive. "Our goal is a 10-year lifetime or 150,000 miles (241,400 kilometers) from a vehicle that satisfies all the customer's expectations without sacrifices and compromises." Making that happen with technology that emerged from the lab only a few years ago is the "true challenge," he adds.
The Chevrolet Volt, which GM plans to introduce in two years (reportedly at a mid-$30,000 base price), is a new breed of gasoline-electric hybrid, cars powered by a battery-powered electric motor that can be recharged on the road with an internal combustion engine.
The Toyota Prius and other hybrids now on the road are propelled primarily by their electric motors; the gasoline engines cut in only at higher speeds. As a result, these conventional hybrids achieve higher fuel economy than cars that run solely on gasoline.
The Volt hybrid is different. It uses both power sources, but it is an electric car that uses its gasoline engine only to generate power and so extend its driving range beyond what the battery could provide on a single charge alone. GM anticipates Volt buyers will plug their cars into home electric sockets each evening and then drive more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) a day on the overnight charge. And because around 80 percent of U.S. motorists travel less than 40 miles on an average day, many should "never have to start up their gas engines," Weber says. The Volt would thus reduce our nation's petroleum consumption and, presumably, its production of greenhouse gas emissions.