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GM's Chevy Volt to hit the streets of San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The company that killed the electric car is ready to resuscitate it. General Motors (GM) this week laid out plans at the Washington (D.C.) Auto Show to prepare communities for the 2011 debut of its Chevy Volt and plug-in electric vehicles that other automakers are set to start building next year. So where are they likely to show up first? Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, GM says, noting that those cities not only have ready-made markets for its lithium ion battery-powered Volt  but, also, have a history of welcoming new kinds of cars (like the Volt's predecessor, the EV-1).

See a Scientific American.com slide show featuring the Volt

The keys to a successful electric car launch, according to GM, include making the cars affordable (current estimates range from $30,000 to $40,000, much of that due to the pricey battery); providing public and workplace charging stations (GM wants the Society of Automotive Engineers to develop standards for the vehicle charging interface); ensuring there's enough electricity to go around (particularly when the air conditioners come on in the summer); getting government and businesses to switch their considerable automobile fleets over to electric, and offering other incentives such as high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane access even if the driver is the only passenger.

Some of these challenges could become major speed bumps. City dwellers (especially those who have to park on the street or in garages) will be hard-pressed to find a place to plug in their electric cars overnight until a large infrastructure of charging stations is built, the San Francisco Examiner noted in August. California will also have its work cut out trying to keep the grid up if large numbers of electric car owners choose to plug in at the same time.

In addition to its multi-billion dollar automaker bailout, the federal government is doing its part to ensure the Volt and its electric ilk make it to market. The Bush administration in October approved a $7,500 tax incentive for consumers of plug-in electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt. A month later, San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland announced a joint effort to build a plug-in vehicle infrastructure and offer incentives (such as convenient recharging stations) to people who garage their gas guzzlers for the green machines. A new Michigan law providing tax breaks for businesses that develop and build electric car lithium ion batteries in that state.

The Volt is different from the current crop of hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, because  it uses its gasoline engine only to generate power to extend its driving range beyond what the battery could provide on a single charge alone, Scientific American.com reported in December. The Prius and other hybrids now on the road are propelled primarily by their electric motors, with the gasoline engines cutting in at higher speeds. 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. Because about 80 percent of U.S. drivers travel less than 40 miles on an average day, many should be able to get by on the car's electric power alone, GM says.

Now all GM needs to do is produce the car—and stick with it, something it failed to do with its EV-1 (introduced in 1996 and axed in 2003, according to GM, because the car wasn't profitable).

Image © GM Corp.

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