The Volt: An Electric Car That Could Change Everything

This electric car could cause a significant shift in the paradigm of green transportation.

| June/July 2007

  • GM Volt E-Flex System
    The new E-Flex system utilizes an electric generator, electric motor, advanced lithium-ion battery pack and a three-cylinder internal combustion engine to dramatically reduce its fuel dependency from current hybrid standards.
    Photo courtesy GENERAL MOTORS
  • GM Volt Dashboard
    Even mixing city and highway miles, the Volt can travel up to 640 miles on just 12 gallons of fuel.
    Photo courtesy GENERAL MOTORS
  • GM Volt
    150 miles per gallon, what a concept! General Motors hopes to produce the Chevrolet Volt as soon as advanced battery technology is available.
    Photo courtesy GENERAL MOTORS
  • GM Volt Bob Lutz
    GM vice chairman Robert Lutz reveals an exciting new electric car design, the Chevrolet Volt. 
    Photo courtesy GENERAL MOTORS

  • GM Volt E-Flex System
  • GM Volt Dashboard
  • GM Volt
  • GM Volt Bob Lutz

General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Volt concept car in early 2007, electrifying the automotive world and exciting those clamoring for revolutionary progress in sustainable transportation. A stylish and sleek coupe with room for four, the Volt also happens to be a plug-in electric vehicle with fuel economy up to 150 miles per gallon. If GM builds it — and that’s still a big if — the Volt could usher in a new era of practical electric cars for the masses and go a long way toward helping America end its much-lamented but ever-growing addiction to oil.

What makes the Volt tick is General Motor’s new E-Flex system, which uses an electric generator, an electric motor, an advanced lithium-ion battery pack and a three-cylinder internal combustion engine. The keystone of the E-Flex system is the battery pack, which consists of hundreds of individual lithium-ion cells and the software that manages them. The batteries can be fully recharged by plugging the car into a standard electrical outlet for about six hours. The small gas engine powers the electric generator, which has two functions: recharge the battery pack when needed and provide extra juice to propel the car at freeway speeds.

The "flex" in E-Flex is twofold: the gas engine is flex-fuel, meaning it can burn gasoline or E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline); and the E-Flex drive is flexible such that it can use a diesel engine or a hydrogen-powered fuel cell instead of a gas engine.

But regardless of whether it’s a conventional gas engine or a futuristic fuel cell, that component of the E-Flex system does not directly power the car. Its role is to power the generator, which provides electricity to propel the car and/or recharge the batteries when needed. That’s how the Volt would differ from current gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius, which are much more dependent on gas. Their electric motors supplement their gas engines; either the motor or the engine can directly power the vehicles.

With the Volt concept, GM’s goal is to blend the best features of electric vehicles and hybrids, and bring to market — perhaps as early as 2010 — a small family car that uses the E-Flex system. GM says the Volt will deliver all-electric driving, meaning zero gas burned, for up to 40 miles in city conditions. At 60 miles of driving, the Volt’s fuel economy would be 150 mpg; at 80 miles, 100 mpg. Beyond that, if the driver can’t recharge via a plug-in outlet, the engine recharges the batteries and the Volt’s fuel economy drops to a still respectable 50 mpg. All this combined, GM says, would propel the car 640 miles on just 12 gallons of fuel, enough to go nonstop from Detroit to Washington, D.C.

While the engine can recharge the batteries, it’s far more economical — and potentially cleaner in terms of emissions — to use the local electric grid rather than gasoline, ethanol or biodiesel. Assuming the local utility’s rate is 10 cents per kilowatt hour (the national average), it would cost about $1.50 to fully charge the car. Driving a typical hybrid 40 miles will cost you $2.50 to $3.00, depending on the hybrid’s fuel economy and the current price of gasoline. Volt owners who only drive short distances could recharge every night and go indefinitely without having to buy gas. And if recharged with renewable energy, such as solar or wind, the car would produce zero or nearly zero emissions.

9/25/2007 11:17:41 AM

There is an interesting video documentary. Who killed the electric car? GM produced the EV1 electric car in California, and they were gaining popularity. GM would not sell the cars, but only lease them out. Oil Companies felt the threat and in the end all of them were taken back and destroyed. Later the bogus "hydrogen" concept came to the forefront to mask over what had happened. Do some research on the EV1. Electric cars are nothing new, they were used alongside gasoline operated cars from the begining of the auto industry. Oil companies can't make any money if we drive electric and that really is the bottom line.

6/26/2007 11:44:49 PM

I just want a practical 5 seater (+ dogs) around town golf cart, 35 mph, 30-50 mile range that's road legal, but not taxed (reg+inspec+massive insurance) like a car, maybe half a motorcycle.... Guess I'll just have to build one....paint it black and only take it on "stealth" missions so the law dogs don't try to steal it.....

6/7/2007 11:41:08 PM

But the battery technology did exist in the 1990's... advanced NiMH gave the EV1 enough range to satisfy the needs of 90% of the population... GM sold their stake in the technology (indirectly) to Chevron, aka big oil, and sat on it. Real world tests showed those batteries in RavEV's had a life of 150,000+ miles to boot. I'm glad you mention Tesla Motors... their Li Ion battery technology is giving their 1st car (high end sports car) a range of 200+ miles, and can accerate from 0-60 in about 4 seconds. They are using thousands of off the shelf Li ion cells in their battery packs.

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