Update: The Chevy Volt, the Electric Car of the Future

Progress continues on the electric car that could change everything we know about green transportation.
By Todd Kaho
Oct. 29, 2008
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It's an electric car. It's a hybrid. It's a plug-in hybrid. It's all of that and more, taking the best features of each. The Volt will hit the streets in late 2010.

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The Chevrolet Volt is perhaps the most highly anticipated car in recent history. It’s not quite an electric vehicle, a gasoline-electric hybrid or a plug-in hybrid, but has characteristics of all three. What’s easier to say is this car, assuming it comes to fruition, could be a game changer — not only for the parent company General Motors and the rest of the auto industry, but also for everything we know about “green” transportation.

How the Volt Works

The Volt’s groundbreaking design has both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. But gasoline does not propel the car — electricity is the sole means by which the Volt moves. The gasoline engine acts as a range extender, generating electricity to recharge the lithium-ion batteries when they run low.

Because the gasoline engine doesn’t directly power the car as it would in a more typical hybrid, such as the Toyota Prius, it is relatively small (1.4 liter 4-cylinder) and is designed to run at an optimum efficiency for the single purpose of generating electricity.

Flexible Fuel

The Volt uses a clever structure GM calls E-Flex, which allows the basic Volt design to be adapted for specific markets around the world. In Europe, for example, a small diesel engine will likely replace the gasoline engine for the range extender. GM has also shown a version of the Volt with a hydrogen fuel cell stack in lieu of the gas engine.

40 Miles and No Gas

One of the primary goals for the Volt is to enable it to operate for 40 miles strictly as an electric vehicle, without assistance from the range extender. Forty miles, GM says, is enough to cover normal daily commutes and driving. If that’s true for you, you wouldn’t use a drop of gasoline to get around town. Beyond 40 miles, your fuel economy would be about 50 miles per gallon for each additional mile driven. So if you drive 90 miles total with the range extender running for the last 50 miles, your fuel economy would be the equivalent of 90 mpg.

Exactly how much total range the Volt will have is unknown at this time, but expect about 400 (40 miles of battery-only operation; 360 more with the assistance of the range extender). A larger fuel tank could add more range, but GM thinks the current plan for 7-gallon tank provides the best balance between additional weight and range.

The Power to Plug In

When it’s time to recharge, a Volt driver simply plugs the car into a standard electrical outlet. A full charge will take six and a half hours, but that can be shortened to as little as three hours by recharging via a 220-volt outlet (like those for clothes dryers). If your employer’s parking lot, or wherever you park your Volt, has an accessible outlet, you could drive 80 miles every day with zero tailpipe emissions. As electric vehicles become more common in the coming years, charging stations will become more common at offices and parking garages.

Batteries that Rock 

The Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack runs down the center tunnel of the car and out to either side under the rear seat area, shaped like a “T.” This configuration is similar to what GM used for the lead-acid batteries that powered the EV1 electric car more than a decade ago. Although battery technology never seems to progress fast enough, the contrast between the EV1’s battery pack and that for the Volt is amazing. For example, the EV1’s batteries weighed over 1,200 pounds; the Volt’s weigh just 375 pounds.

Several suppliers have been vying for the Volt battery contract, with each new  chemistry being put through rigorous durability and longevity testing. The Volt’s lithium-ion batteries won’t have the same thermal (read: fire) issues that have made news with laptop computer batteries. New battery chemistry, design, packaging, charging-discharge routines and separators within the cells all make the newest lithium-ion battery packs safer and more robust.

A Sexy Electric Car?

When the original concept for the Volt was unveiled in 2007, its looks captured the hearts and minds of car enthusiasts and environmentalists alike. Some even referred to the Volt as an “electric Camaro.” Concept cars, however, don’t spend time in the wind tunnel, and the original design quickly proved to have the aerodynamics of a brick. The actual Volt we’ll see in showrooms and on the road (in late 2010 as a 2011 model) looks more like the family-friendly Chevrolet Malibu sedan than the hot-rod Camaro, but it still has a unique, futuristic character (there are several photos in the Image Gallery).

Costs: Up-front and Long-term

GM has yet to announce pricing for the Volt, but sources say it will be in the mid-to-upper $30,000 range. That price tag may come down if there are battery technology breakthroughs and with expanded production. Buyers may also be eligible for substantial tax credits, depending on future legislation from Congress.

When the rubber hits the road, though, your actual operating costs would be quite low. GM estimates that at current energy costs, the Volt will cover a mile for about 2 cents in pure electric mode. With the range-extending gas engine running, expect costs of about 10 to 12 cents per mile. To put that in perspective, a daily charge will use less electricity over the course of a year than the average household refrigerator. If that charge comes from solar, wind or other renewable energy sources, we can move that much closer to truly going “green.”

For more information about the Volt:

The Volt: An Electric Car That Could Change Everything

GM Volt (news and information about the car; not affiliated with GM)

Official GM site for the Volt

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12/8/2008 10:47:50 PM
papastardust hit the nail on the head. GM has some of the best spin doctors anywhere. They have managed to get press releases and articles published in trade-related consumer magazines for decades. Half a century ago, they were trumpeting the "wonderful" advances GM cars pioneered which made all cars safer or smoother riding or whatever. Actually, at that time, they weren't stretching too far. Alfred Sloan and his contemporaries were great innovators, and working for a large corporation like GM ensured that at least some pf their best ideas would be applied to GM vehicles. Alas, since the sixties (more or less), American car makers have been outpaced in design, innovation, overall quality, and value by manufacturers which are based, in many cases, in countries which were at war with the Allies in WWII. But GM still is able to convince the media that they have great ideas. Like the Vega, Chevette, and other models with great concepts but poor execution. Chevrolet keeps promising the stars and delivering dust, while the public increasingly votes with their pocketbooks - across the street. How they plan to market a car with a non-existent technology (at the price point they are proposing) is a great mystery. Perhaps when it doesn't work out, they will try to shift the blame to Panasonic or Epson; nobody would believe them if they pointed to Toyota or Hyundai anymore. It is wishful thinking by a bunch of desperate, rich executives, I fear.

11/4/2008 10:28:12 AM
I'm glad to see us getting somewhere... ...if only within the stupid, greedy, profit-driven structure. We've got to work with what we have. It's not ideal in any way, but that's what's there. Until we manage to change what motivates our society, that's what we've got to work with. If we can't (or won't) do that, in the big picture, we won't get anywhere at all. Unfortunately, a $30-40K four-seater isn't realistic-- or even really viable-- for a family of five on $27K a year. So for us, it looks like it's going to be being as sparing as possible with the most efficient used compact conventional or gas/electric hybrid vehicle we can get our hands on for the forseeable future. Probably for a lot of other families, too. It's too bad everything "has" to be driven by the profit motive.

11/3/2008 2:22:54 PM
Why don't they put a photovoltaic cell in the roof of the car to charge it while it is sitting at the office for 8 hours a day! wouldn't that make the car truly green and help extend your range for your commute. With the advances in technology in the PV industry you would think that it could be installed so that it would be integral and not look like a piece of plywood on the roof.

11/2/2008 8:38:41 AM
Sounds good- on paper- except for 3 things: #1 Cost. #2 Still fossil fuel-dependent. Sure, the engine isn't run directly by gasoline power, but it still utilizes it indirectly, *and* the electricity that the engine is charged with at night is produced largely by...wait for it...coal-burning power plants. If, in fact, we are using up all our fossil fuel resournces, we still have to find a replacement. #3 Expecting employers to install charging stations in parking lots for the benefit and convenience of the employees is unrealistic. It's expensive, time-consuming and inconvenient, and at a time when employers are doing everything they can to reduce their operating costs, it's unlikely they'll be willing to accomodate electic car drivers. Those who do will pass on the cost to the employees (plus a little profit, of course), resulting in a hit to the workers' pockets. Nice theory, though.

11/1/2008 8:45:22 PM
WHAT A LAUGH. Chevy had a great electric car and they shut it down..wouldn't extend thier lease or let them be bought outright.CRUSH EM?? Ford's electric Ranger recieved praise from its owners ,TEN YEARS AGO. Can you imagine a car company that would give up the money that is made on maintenance, no oil changes and engine overhauls. Call Texaco if you want the worlds best batteries, but they won't admit they have them. Mother Earth News, are you really for MOTHER EARTH???

Dave Watts
10/31/2008 7:31:54 PM
Brian, The increased drag of a turbine mounted on the car would require more motive power which would require more energy which would negate any " ongoing" charge from the turbine. Alas, perpetual motion is still out of reach until we rewrite the laws of physics.

lawrence kniepkamp
10/31/2008 6:22:44 PM
I have read that current L.I. batteries are good for about 2000 recharges. That's about three years of twice a day recharges. Since replacement parts usually cost about five times O.E. parts how much will it cost to replace the L.I. batteries when they fail?

10/31/2008 12:57:48 PM
$0 miles for $30,000 +. Tesla motors is giving close to 200 mi. for $110,000. Tesla is a small company with little backing. GM should bew able to equal thir efforts for less money. Very disapointed Ken

10/31/2008 12:54:15 PM
what is keeping someone from mounting a wind power turbine on the hood or roof of the car to provide ongoing charge for the batteries?

Gale Whitaker
10/31/2008 11:35:00 AM
Todd I'm sure you will be as disappointed as I was to hear that the gas engine in the Volt will not have the ability to recharge the battery. The engine will only power the electric motor. I am hoping that as time goes on GM will add the recharging feature. GM has given the impression that recharging is possible using some tricky wording in their ad campaign. Gale

10/29/2008 6:00:59 PM
When I first heard of the Volt it was supposed to be ready by 2008 and cost about $20,000.I was pretty excited.Then it would be ready in 2010 and cost $30,000.Less excited.My quess is if it ever ready it will cost $40,000 or better.Not excited at all.It will not be within the reach of the average car buyer and it can't be.GM had the future in it's hand with the EV-1. They crushed the EV and the company with it.Now Toyota is the world leader.

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