GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

Summary:The Chevrolet Volt, going on sale this month heralds in a new age of automotive EV technology. But will customers bite on the $41,000 price tag?

The Chevrolet Volt, going on sale this month heralds in a new age of automotive EV technology. But will customers bite on the $41,000 price tag? (Photo by Jason Perlow)

I admit that I'm something of a car junkie. So when the opportunity came to test-drive the new Chevy Volt, the hybrid Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV) that's been under active development by GM for four years (and arguably even longer) I absolutely jumped at the chance to put myself behind the wheel of this technological marvel.

Hybrids have been out for a while. The Toyota Prius of course is the best-known and by all accounts has been a major commercial success, but it's been something of a compromise car from a Green Technology standpoint.

Like most hybrid vehicles the electric motor in the Prius works in tandem with a traditional internal combustion engine, which switches itself on and off as needed to power/charge the car's electric motor/batteries or to directly engage the powertrain like a conventional gasoline car, using what is called a Hybrid Synergy Drive.

The Prius also employs a novel regenerative braking system that actually feeds power back to the batteries during the braking process. As such, combined with the Synergy Drive, the Prius is a very mechanically complicated car and is still gasoline-dominant in its design.

True battery-powered EV's (Electric Vehicles) have taken a long time to come to market because the battery and electric motor technology required to power them has taken a great deal of time and money to build and develop.

General Motors has been experimenting with EVs for a long time, Most notably the EV1 in the late 1990s, but the range, peak electric motor horsepower, as well as the overall performance of the NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries for the weight and size required was disappointing.

Also See: Chevy Volt (Gallery)

Add 10 more years of battery, electric motor and computer technology, and you get the Voltec powertrain used in the Chevy Volt. Instead of the much heavier and bulkier Lead Acid and NiMH power packs used in the EV1, the Volt uses only about 500lbs of high-density Lithium Ion cells manufactured by LG.

While the Volt is still technically considered a hybrid because it also has an on-board 1.4L 4-cylinder 74 horsepower gasoline engine in addition to the electrical powertrain used in the Voltec system, the car is primarily battery-dominant rather than gasoline-dominant, which is an important distinction from the other hybrid vehicles currently on the market.

Unlike the Prius, which has mechanical linkages between the gasoline engine and the transmisson, the Volt doesn't. With the Volt, he gasoline generator is only engaged when the batteries completely run out of charge for "Extended Range" (350 miles total with the 8 gallon tank) or if the car enters "Mountain Mode" to provide a higher level of voltage to the 149 horsepower electric powertrain to climb steep hills.

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The average commuter is likely to use the Volt in a pure EV mode without having to use the gasoline generator at all -- GM has designed the Volt so that the battery cells provide the car with a 50 mile range, which is well above the average daily commute of most Americans (30-40 miles).

When you get home, you plug the car into the supplied charging station, which connects to your standard 110VAC outlet, and if you've completely depleted the battery, it will fully charge in approximately 10 hours. GM's battery people have told me that it should only cost about $1.50 a day to charge the car.

GM also offers an optional 240VAC rapid charger system for the Volt that will fully charge the car all the way from fully depleted in four hours, but estimates that including electrician's costs, it will run you around $1700.00 total including the rapid charger to install it and the special dedicated circuit in your garage. As such, most Volt customers probably won't opt to go that route.

I drive the Chevy Volt with Larry Wilson, GM's Business Manager of Global Battery Systems and Hybrid Controls.

So what did I think of the car?

Well, there's no doubt that the vehicle is extremely cool. The chassis of the car, along with the 1.4L gasoline engine is derived from the 4-door Chevrolet Cruze, so there are some external aesthetic similarities, but that's where most of the similarities end. Like the Cruze, the Volt is a 4-door car, but it's a hatchback. The two front seats will fit two BIG people very comfortably.

This is not a hybrid electric car made for diminutive Japanese people, to be absolutely blunt. My only serious compliant about the car's ergonomics was when I tried to stuff myself into the rear seats and almost twisted my head off in the process due to the sloping roof, but generally speaking I'd expect the rear seats to be occupied by children and the occasional extra passengers.

The focus of the car's technology is in the "Center stack" where the capacitive touchscreen Multi-Function Display (MFD) sits. Much like the Prius, the MFD shows battery consumption and power efficiency data from the electrical powertrain and also is used to control the OnStar navigation system, the XM satellite radio/entertainment system as well as the various comfort modes including heated seats and the climate control system.

The car's entertainment system has a USB plug in the center console for jacking in your iPod/iPhone/MP3 or Android device so you can play your digital music. Additionally, iOS and Android apps are provided for integrating with OnStar's telemetric data if you want to monitor your car's charging status remotely using your smartphone. There's also a website you can use if you want to do the same thing with your PC.

The car's main dashboard (the "Driver Information Center") is digital and is fairly simple, displaying the drive gear mode, remaining miles on the charge and miles per hour. I didn't notice a tach, but I suppose in a EV you really don't expect there to be one.

[EDIT: My colleague Andrew Nusca has more screen shots of the DIC, which has a lot more indicators on it. It's possible that on this test car, GM had certain preferences set which made the display appear less busy.]

Also See: First Drive, Chevrolet Volt (SmartPlanet)

Driving the car in pure EV mode is well... spooky. To start the car, you simply push a blue button in the center console which illuminates to tell you that the powertrain is energized. Other than a computerized Star-Trekky "bootup" sound, you don't hear anything at all from the propulsion system.

When you're driving the car in EV mode, everything is dead silent, you're just gliding along and feeling the acceleration, with no engine vibration at all. You don't really even hear wind noises because the car is very well soundproofed.

Granted, I only got to do a couple of laps with the vehicle in the parking lot of the Palisades Center Mall, in Nyack, New York. But it's my understanding that even at highway speeds, the car is also extremely silent. In terms of performance, the car is capable of speeds of up to 100mph in EV mode, which for a battery-powered car with an electric motor is extremely impressive.

So the big issue here is the price. The Volt is not an inexpensive car -- it's $41,000.00, which is a considerable sum of money when you compare it to the other hybrid mid-sized vehicles on the market. I priced a comparable Prius at about $31,000.00 retail, approximately $10,000.00 less.

It should be understood, however, that the cutting-edge battery and electric propulsion technology in the Volt is extremely expensive when compared to what is used in a traditional hybrid, and if you factor in that the car is eligible for a federal tax credit of $7,500.00, it starts to look a bit more attractive, netting you around $33,000. Still, this is a car for early adopters, and with anything in the early adoption stage, you're going to pay a premium.

Nevertheless, the Volt is still a very exciting car, and GM is going to continue to develop the Voltec system for use in other vehicles. Hopefully, within the next several years, the powertrain technology used in this car will become more affordable with economies of scale, and competition from other car-makers -- such as with Nissan and their "Leaf" EV due early next year -- will drive the prices of EVs like the Volt down.

Are you interested in buying the Chevy Volt or another EV? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: I am an employee of IBM, which is a supplier of technology used by General Motors in the design and creation of the Chevy Volt. The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topics: Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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