The Verdict’s in on the Chevy Volt

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"The Verdict’s in on the Chevy Volt"

4 stars out of 5 for GM’s plug-in hybrid electric car

GM has made a huge leap into the 21st Century by pursuing the Volt. If ever this company needed a new car on which to hang its future, the time is now, and the Volt is it. This car and its future offspring should win back the attention of the motoring public — and we say that genuinely!

40 Vancouver electric vehicle enthusiasts test drove pre-production Chevy Volts.  Guest blogger John Stonier has this (semi-)exclusive look at GM’s new plug-in hybrid EV, in a post first published at evworld.com, whose goal is “to provide a human face to the topic of sustainable transportation.”

General Motors issued a very special invitation to the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association last week to drive the two Chevrolet Volts visiting the city for the 2010 Winter Olympics. GM generously offered 40 of the Association’s 210 members a unique opportunity to learn more about the car while it is still in pre-production. The event also allowed GM to get feedback from enthusiasts with years of electric car driving experience.

GM has produced 80 third generation pre-production prototypes, two of which came to the Olympic city. This version of the Volt should be close to the final production car due to roll out of a Detroit facility later this spring. Of the 80 cars, most are used for testing and development purposes, but these two vehicles were finished for public display and will be prominently featured during the Olympic Games over the next few weeks. According to GM officials the first production cars will be available in Washington DC, Detroit and California later this fall. Canada should see our first Volts in showrooms later in 2011.

While in Vancouver, the Volt has special licensing arrangements for use only in designated Olympic lanes, and private roadways, so VEVA’s driving course was limited. However everyone had a chance to sit behind the wheel, glide the glossy centre console shift into drive and punch the accelerator to their satisfaction.

GM has put a lot of practical and innovative engineering into this metamorphosis from internal combustion to electric, even though the Volt still carries a piston engine under the hood. The serial electric design (all electric drive, with on-board gasoline generator to recharge the battery when needed) was chosen to take away the range anxiety that continues to pre-occupy the auto industry. As EV purists, VEVA members weren’t so thrilled with this extra complexity for the car. As a first offering from a major auto company, it’s a step in the right direction. A full electric vehicle is only more and better batteries away.

While our test drive opportunities were somewhat limited, VEVA members rated each of the following aspects of the car with one (needs improvement) to five(excellent) stars:

Safety 5 Stars *****

GM has done a very thorough job on safety with the Volt. Any powerful energy technology needs to be treated with respect, and here GM has excelled. The car is controlled by an array of computers that continuously check all of the five main systems on the car through the low voltage 12V system starting when you first turn the key. Not until all system and safety checks are completed does the high voltage traction battery become activated. When charging these checks ensure that no energy flows through the charging plug until all systems are properly connected, and when the plug is removed all high voltage energy is removed from the plug and surrounding area. You can’t activate the car’s traction pack unless the plug is removed.

Visibility from the driver’s seat is good. The colourful and crisp information displays show everything you need just below the sightline. Available all electric range (“AER”) distance is prominently displayed, as well as the gasoline range down to the kilometer, so Volt drivers never have to wonder how much juice is left. You might be distracted from the centre console touch screen which provides three menus displays and controls including energy flows, system status and other cabin features. In the event of an accident, inertial switches immediately open the high voltage contactors, de-energizing the motor drive and traction pack systems, while maintaining low voltage power to braking, steering and all other safety systems remains at the driver’s disposal. Under the hood the complexity is hidden by large plastic covers limiting access to the major components. Easy accessed 12V battery boosting points are prominent at the top of the compartment for the very rare occasion that you might need them (but very handy for giving boosts to drivers of conventional cars). Eight air bags and self-tensioning seat belts round out the main safety features.

Styling and Design 4 Stars ****

When the first concept vehicle rolled down the runway at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2007, the design was sleek and macho. Concepts are concepts, and the production versions seldom seem to live up to their dream car namesakes. The pre-production version of the Volts we drove retains that sleek and distinctive feel of the concept, while also being a practical vehicle for a broad cross section of the driving public. The five-door hatchback design is nicely packaged, making this a versatile sedan with lots of storage.

Inside, the cabin the central console forms an airy channel down the centre of the car. Under it lies the central energy store, the T – shaped traction battery pack that begins near the gear shift and runs aft to the rear of the cabin where it Ts out under the rear floor boards.

All of the drive components are housed under the hood. Between the front wheels lies a consolidation of the electric drive motor, gasoline generator, power control systems, and traction battery charger. When you look at this, there is a lot of complicated equipment here that may be more than many consumers need or want. A larger battery and you could lose more than half of the complicated mechanical components here. See our parting comments.

Efficiency Outlook 4 Stars **** (pending final production car road test)

We won’t know exactly how efficient the Volt will be until we can fully road test a production model. As it is now, the Chevy Volt is the second most aerodynamic car that GM has ever produced. With a coefficient of drag of approximately 0.28 it is second only to that other legendary vehicle produced by GM, the EV-1 (which had an incredibly efficient coefficient of drag of 0.21!).

Thermal management is key to efficiency in electric systems, and here Volt engineers have excelled by crafting integrated liquid cooling and heating throughout the five main systems: Drive motor, drive motor power control, gas engine/generator, traction batteries, and charging. Sophisticated monitoring and control systems ensure that no system overheats, and that electric drive systems are cooled for maximum efficiency. In extreme cold conditions the system ensures that the traction pack does not get too cold – it actually receives heat to ensure top performance.

Rounding out efficiency, GM told us they have been working on new low resistance tires, but we don’t have any specifics to pass on at this point.

Electric Drive Components 4 Stars ****

The drive motor provides 111KW of peak power, more than enough for a sedan of this size and class. The Volt should easily outperform any internal combustion engined car in its class, and at the stated zero – 60mph in 9 seconds, it would be respectable. Our micro-course acceleration trials certainly reaffirmed that potential. Even after the AER has been used, and the Volt is running on its 53KW gasoline generator, a full 111KW of power is still available for acceleration due to the battery management system that always keeps enough energy in reserve for such bursts when required. (We have no pictures to show you. GM insisted no photos be taken under the hood.)

Volt drivers immediately feel the power of electric traction, and the elegance of power without excessive clatter or emissions. Acceleration is responsive and re-assuring, as is the electric ‘regen’ braking (reclaiming some of the energy used to accelerate back into the traction pack). This should extend the service duty of the four wheel disc brakes two to three times that of conventional cars. Energy flows are displayed in real-time on the centre console depicted as “balls” of energy that pulse either to the wheels while accelerating or from the wheels when regen braking. Is this a good thing? VEVA feels that educating drivers and passengers of real time energy flows are the perfect feedback loop for training more efficient drivers over the long term.

Traction Pack (16KWh High Voltage Battery) 4 Stars ****

For the traction pack (the ‘gas tank’ of the future) GM selected LG Chem’s lithium manganese chemistry for this supplier’s quality control and long term experience. It was not a linear decision from all accounts. More than 200 cells provide a total voltage of 380V and 16KWh of energy, enough (GM says) to power the vehicle 64km AER, and approximately 500km under generator assisted power. We think the design consideration to use fewer cells (compared to the Tesla roadster at 6,800 cells) is a good and sensible choice for both reliability and safety. Fewer connections mean fewer potential points of failure.

The gas generator charging system is designed to always leave enough juice in the traction pack to operate the car normally, even if you’ve reached the gas tank range threshold. This approach protects the traction pack from discharging beyond the limits that threaten performance longevity.

The Volt’s battery management system design has paid strict attention to the fundamentally important factor of active thermal management. This means that all electrical components are kept within their appropriate operating temperatures; cooled when more efficiency results, and in the event of freezing temperatures, warmed to provide full performance in all conditions. This feature alone will go a long way to ensuring long term performance and safety of the traction pack.

GM officials stated that, on average, 75% of drivers don’t drive more than 64km per day, so it’s possible that some people may never touch the fuel in the tank for the generator. Will the fuel go stale? According to GM, there are routines built into the generator system that will turn the generator on during regular operation periodically to ensure that this won’t happen, and to ensure that this system gets a regular work-out to ensure reliability.

We think the size of the main traction pack could be larger. GM has chosen a very reliable lithium ion chemistry from a very reliable supplier. GM’s choice results in lower energy density than other formulations available, and therefore less energy storage on board. Also, lithium manganese batteries deliver lower peak power than other chemistries, limiting the potential performance possible. Other electric cars currently in production have 50-230% more energy storage on board (e.g. Tesla Roadster, 400km or 250 mile range, 53KWh), and will use chemistries that will provide more punch in power. This is not a bad thing for the extended range hybrid Volt, but GM has actively chosen not to pursue more AER than 64km.

Despite these reservations we believe Volt engineers have built a solid traction battery system and platform which should facilitate evolution to a full electric version of the product line. We hope it won’t be long before GM will offer a full electric vehicle, without the gasoline auxiliary power system complexity; the additional manufacturing cost; and longer term maintenance costs that come with this component.

Think EV-2. All the elegance of the original EV-1, with the substantial improvements to energy storage and human interface technology advanced by the mobile electronics and internet sectors in the last ten years. In the next ten years, the focus will be on even more improvements to large format battery technology, and this is where we should be able to say good bye to the internal combustion engine for most applications.

Re-Charging Systems and Times: 4 Stars ****

Chevrolet is using the new SAE J1772 charging plug standard. Two cords come with the car, one for your home garage to be hard-wired into your house by a qualified electrician. A second cord is stored in the trunk for charging away from home, and can plug into any 120V or 240V conventional outlets.

This is much less expensive than some of the other proposed charging systems where electric car companies are offering multi-thousand dollar home charging systems (plus installation charges). The home cord will be wired to a 240V- 30A circuit in your home, essentially the same as your normal dryer plug. The SAE J1772 system does allow for higher amperages, so an oven plug (240V – 50A) service would be preferable – both are standard wiring in North American homes. In any case, the Volt is only going to draw just above 20A during any charge period, or about 3 hours on a 240V circuit for a fully discharged battery. (10 hours with regular 120V outlets).

Mobile Interface: Will your car have its own face book page too? 5 Stars *****

In the human interface area, GM has really done something fantastic. Leveraging their On-Star two-way communications network, Volt engineers have interfaced scheduled charging and vehicle monitoring into the latest downloadable app for your mobile phone (you can also do this from the console inside the car directly). Volt owners will be able to schedule what time they want their cars to charge which will take advantage of lower overnight rates for electricity, where available, or, simply ensure that your car is fully juiced for regular use. It will also tell you what the state of charge is at any time, and monitor key events such as when your charging is interrupted for any reason. This is just the beginning of the technological features electric car will make reality, and we look forward to more innovation in the future.

Overall: 4 Stars ****

GM has made a huge leap into the 21st Century by pursuing the Volt. If ever this company needed a new car on which to hang its future, the time is now, and the Volt is it. This car and its future offspring should win back the attention of the motoring public — and we say that genuinely!

The next step must be a full electric model without the secondary gas powered system under the hood, never the less, we are pleased with the results to date, and we look forward to seeing the Volt in showrooms soon.

— John Stonier

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30 Responses to The Verdict’s in on the Chevy Volt

  1. Brewster says:

    I have been following the Volt’s progress almost from the beginning, and the work that GM has put into the car is INCREDIBLE.

    And they have not backed off at all even as they have undergone massive internal corporate problems.

    Joe, I think you have called the car “over-engineered” a few times, and I think I understand why – there’s some truth to it.

    But in terms of what GM needs to turn its corporate ship around, I think they’ve done it exactly right.

    A massive advertising campaign claiming the “car of the future” followed by a half-assed effort not significantly better than the competition would probably have finished GM.

    And I think it would have done major harm to the AGW and energy independence causes as well.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    I particularly liked hearing from the lead engineer on this project, who described the lengths they were going through to get nominal battery range at the end of the car’s nominal life. I’ve been if anything too much acquainted with batteries via various professional activities, have learned by hard experience that battery capacity claims are a real tripping point for engineers and marketers both.

    This car is what a hybrid ought to be. Hybrids are an engineering nightmare, way too complex to be really satisfying for anybody concerned with parts count and failure opportunities, but they’re a necessary stepping stone given our problems ingrained habits and battery manufacturing limitations. GM appears to be delivering the first fully evolved take on a hybrid with the Volt.

    Better yet, they largely ditched the concept appearance so we don’t have to look like Marvel Comics superheros in order drive ‘em.

  3. Brewster says:

    “Better yet, they largely ditched the concept appearance so we don’t have to look like Marvel Comics superheros in order drive ‘em.”

    Doug, I agree with you. The “boy racer” look of the concept hardly looked like the image of a mature technology ready for the Big Leagues.

    But there are many out there who were severely disappointed.

  4. Geo Francis says:

    Looks like the green all electric ice machines failed. The Zamboni is back to prepare Olympic ice tracks. Electrics all failed. Olympia Millenium meltdown.

  5. Doug Bostrom says:

    Geo Francis says: February 18, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Yeah, electricity. What a bitter disappointment, a failure all ’round. Publicity stunts like sending astronauts to the moon and back half a dozen time don’t impress me at all.

    Me, I prefer my washing machine run by a steam engine out back, powered by good old anthracite coal. The smoke just “goes away”, the ashes I dump in the creek out back, and descaling the boiler only takes a couple of hours a month. What’s not to like?

    I hear there’s a new version, powered by a highly flammable liquid producing hundreds of explosions per minute in a metal tube kind of thing. Sounds really modern, maybe I’ll look into one of those.

  6. GFW says:

    Jumping from GM to Nissan for a moment, does anyone know how the *heck* Nissan is supposed to get 100 miles on a charge in the Leaf? That’s a lot of Lithium Ion battery … either they’ve found a way to make such batteries cheaper, or they’ll be selling at a loss.

  7. Dave McRae says:

    Ahhh warms the heart of this ex-diesel-electric submariner.

    This is how it should be – serial drive, engines nowhere near propulsion, only a motor please – keeps it simple

    (I’ll replace the horn with a klaxon, put a snorkel on the gas generator for the long voyages and she’ll be perfect )

  8. prokaryote says:

    What about those EV-1’s? Could GM generously pull out those blueprints again and start the engines?

  9. fj2 says:

    Recumbent tricycles break urban speed limits under human power alone. With small electric assists of 450 Watts to 750 Watts they are serious transportation with the same accessibility as high performance wheelchairs.

    Modularity provides for multiple riders and extra freight.

    Folding versions fit in the back of SmartCars, inside cubicles, miniscule apartments: On-demand and distributed transportation at a small fraction of the costs of cars.

    Weather protection from clothing or on-demand faired enclosures as desired.

    Rail systems provide completely safe higher performance transport and transit while road accidents in New York State alone cost over $19 billion.

    With cars as a prime example of excessive consumption of the rich this type of technology has one percent the environmental footprint and much less when infrastructure and all the externalities are considered.

    Cars create local transportation monopolies worldwide by making the world’s roads, streets, and public spaces unsafe for anything else than expensive and excessive over-powered heavy armored vehicles.

  10. Lore says:

    I see no mention of value/price? Will America, let alone the world, be able to now afford to make an environmental impact with a $40K+ electric vehicle, or will it be just another status symbol for eco-conscience Hollywood elitists?

    Then again will electric vehicles ever be viable using lithium technology? “GM has chosen a very reliable lithium ion chemistry from a very reliable supplier.” The chemistry may be very reliable but the very few suppliers and quantitities of lithium are not.

  11. Øyvind says:

    Hey. Thanks for a great site and valuable information.

    You might want to check out this great idea, as well:
    http://www.energymap.dk/Profiles/Better-Place-Denmark

    Good day!

  12. How much?

    [JR: Not clear. Presumably 40k-ish (with tax credit). Like all new technology, doesn’t start at mass market level. Nissan EV should be cheaper.]

  13. fj2 says:

    11. Øyvind,

    Regarding “Denmark produces enough wind power to provide 450.000 EVs”

    Forgot to mention that congestion costs New York City $13 billion each year.

  14. Zach says:

    I’m surprised GM hasn’t already started a commercial campaign along the lines of, “What if you could buy a car and spend $2/gallon forever?” ($0.12/kwh X 16, assuming 40 mpg for same car with gas engine only).

    Of course, if the average cost new is really $40k, even optimistic calculations would not see this costing less than a Prius over its lifetime, so that sort of campaign would be somewhat misleading.

  15. Jan van Beilen says:

    Whatever its merits, European cities still have no room for cars. And (as a bicycling commuter): getting run over by a Volt hurts just as much as getting run down by an SUV.

    So, please skip the Volt and try the (electric) bike: many more kilometers per kWh (or sandwich), less traffic jams, more livable cities.

  16. Lore says:

    “Of course, if the average cost new is really $40k, even optimistic calculations would not see this costing less than a Prius over its lifetime, so that sort of campaign would be somewhat misleading.”

    This cost will, initially at least, be subsidized by the US Gov as in tax credits. The cost of manufacturing the vehicle likewise. The plan is to also guarantee the battery pack for 100,000 miles. All this has to be weighted against the likelihood of increased costs in liquid fossil fuels. Will this still be enough to offer a reasonable payback in the first 100,000 miles of the vehicles life? Then what about all those used vehicles over 100,000 miles that need half their original cost to replace those batteries? Your Volt maybe essentially worthless past the guarantee.

    In reality, always somebody pays for the giveaways, or to be at the cutting edge to promote new technology. However, the real question, as in the fiasco of “ethanol” production, is will this just prove to be another one of those crazy quilt of patchwork solutions that are eventually declared to be too expensive to pursue?

  17. fj2 says:

    14. Zach, “if the average cost new is really $40k . . .”

    With cars you get a huge amount of technology for the money. The question is do you really need it? And, the dollar costs do not directly reflect the environmental costs. We are not in a green economy and indirectly, for every dollar spent there are lots of externalities including more emissions.

    All that wind power that (11. Øyvind) is being allocated for automobiles can go toward much more effective strategies mitigating and adapting to climate change which cost a lot less and will do a lot more the sooner they are started; reference The Stern Report. Joseph Romm also addresses the importance of this strategy of low cost and emissions front-end loading when discussing nuclear power on this site.

    There are a lot of similarities between the electric car strategy and the financial bailout of banks strategy.

    1. There are a lot of unknowns going against those deeply entrenched and in power, the entrenched institutions are perceived as “too-big-to-fail;” broad, potentially very positive disruptive interventions will also come with a lot of unknowns.

    2. So, the common wisdom seems to be that we must settle with at best, “muddling through” incremental solutions to the financial and climate change crisis; at least for now, even though it has been and will be very expensive and may not work.

  18. Zach says:

    “Will this still be enough to offer a reasonable payback in the first 100,000 miles of the vehicles life? Then what about all those used vehicles over 100,000 miles that need half their original cost to replace those batteries? Your Volt maybe essentially worthless past the guarantee.”

    I think my $1/gallon assumption is pretty reasonable. Let’s say $0.50 to $2; that means you’d save $1000-$4000 over that distance. Unless there’s a $10k tax credit, you won’t catch the Prius. I’m assuming battery & engine maintenance costs are the same, but I suppose the first would be more expensive for the Volt and the latter more expensive for the Prius.

    I’m also assuming that you charge a 16kwh battery with 100% efficiency, by the way. I don’t know that this is particularly accurate for a 3-hour charge. Any idea how efficient the charging is?

  19. Lore says:

    I’m also assuming that you charge a 16kwh battery with 100% efficiency, by the way. I don’t know that this is particularly accurate for a 3-hour charge. Any idea how efficient the charging is?

    The battery, in order to preserve life, is only charged to 80% and is never allowed to discharge below 20%.

  20. Zach says:

    @Lore … interesting. If you’re only using 9.6kWH of the battery that changes things a lot; maybe about $1.60 per 50 miles assuming 90% charging efficiency.

  21. Amy says:

    I’ve heard the price point on the Volt is $40k plus. My husband and I make more than average and that’s too rich for our blood. Very disappointing. If Toyota can do a hybrid for $20k, why not GM?

    [JR: This isn’t a gasoline hybrid. This has a whole electric drivetrain besides the gasoline engine and much bigger battery than hybrids like the Prius I own. But, yes, ultimately the price will have to come down, as I expect it will just as the price of oil is going up.]

  22. colinc says:

    First, that is one ugly car! Looks like GM is taking design concepts from Chrysler. Second, if that pricing “guesstimate” is even remotely accurate and given the direction “the economy” is heading, there won’t be more than 1,000 people in the country able to afford one and I doubt they’ll “trade” their AMGs or Cayennes for something so ugly and poor performing. Lastly, how the hell does this correlate to your article yesterday about GM’s “push” for more E85, which IS a sorry excuse for “replacing” fossil-fuels? I see this as nothing more than the standard bait-and-switch operation that has come to define “The American Way.” GM can kiss my ass. No, strike that. I don’t want any of their moronic minions within a country-mile of me.

  23. JasonW says:

    No love on this site for the radical Tesla Model S? Only 10k more than this decently innovative, yet butt-ugly vehicle (much like the Prius then).

    http://www.teslamotors.com/models/

  24. Alex says:

    If this gives GM enough CAFE wiggle room to make the on-again-off-again supercharged 550 HP Camaro Z/28 that they keep teasing, I’m all for it.

    ::waits patiently for the eco-fascists to wag their fingers at me::

  25. Doug Bostrom says:

    Alex says: February 18, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Ok. Wag.

    There are so few of the cars you mention they’re really not a threat, so mash your pedal to the metal and be happy.

    The SUV craze is what really sent fleet efficiency into the toilet. That was a matter of style and psychological coziness pretty much unconnected with the visceral thrill of pumping gasoline and air in huge quantities through a thrashing, surging mass of metal and rubber. When cars become a fashion accessory– a means of proxy self-expression like designer handbags– all kinds of crazy things can happen, such as the H2.

  26. Brewster says:

    23 Jason:

    The Tesla is a nice looking vehicle, but I would scarcely call the Volt Butt-Ugly – I rather like it! (Looks are always a matter of taste anyway – I think the Fisker blows them both away – at a price.)

    The Volt has a 40 mile All-Electric Range, (sufficient for most people’s commutes) then you can drive as long as you like on gasoline. The basic Tesla will have a 240 mile All Electic Range, then you park it.

    The Volt is out in pre-production, the Tesla, as best I can tell, is still Vapourware, running about a year behind the Volt.

    As you say, the Volt is “decently innovative”. I would give it more credit than that. The Tesla is a modern iteration of the same electric car technology which has been around for over a century. (That’s a bit unfair, but you get the idea.)

    As for price, the Gen I Volt will probably be $40,000 BEFORE rebate, making it $32,500. GM has already suggested that Gen II will be noticeably cheaper, as battery tests, etc. are going very well. The Tesla is $49,900 AFTER rebate, and that’s their guess on a machine that isn’t even rolling yet.

    The Tesla has its place, but people who are upset at the Volt’s $32K+ price are not going to get on board a vehicle that’s $17 MORE and can’t travel a full day, no matter how pretty.

  27. Brewster says:

    Oops – that’s $17,000 MORE for the Tesla (Most of you probably figured that out.)

    Joe, it sure would be nice to have an edit feature.

  28. JasonW says:

    Brewster: Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big supporter of what GM, and its European daughters Opel and Vauxhall, are doing with the Volt/Ampera. And I reckon I was a little harsh on the design – it definitely is a better looking car than the Prius (although I’m a bigger fan of the Ampera – if it stays this way -> http://www.opel-ampera.com/english/#/home Another good picture here -> http://img.worldcarfans.com/2009/2/large/opel-ampera-spy-photo-during-video-shoot_2.jpg ).

    In fact, were I to drive a car, I’d go for a hybrid (Prius, Insight or Ampera) – seeing as I live in a mid-size town with a great public transport system and ten minutes away from work, I’m going to stick with my bike.

  29. Michael Heath says:

    I’m hearing the price point will be $40K not including the $7500 tax credit.

    Prices will come down, especially when volumes go up to the point Chevy’s supply base can invest in more hard tooling (whose per unit costs are much lower but requires sufficient volumes to justify the high start-up price). Pricing will go also down when battery capabilities allows manufacturers the ability to remove components running on gasoline.

  30. Alex says:

    @Doug Bostrom,

    If SUV’s are what grinds your gears, that’s okay, as long as you leave the sports/pony/muscle cars alone.