GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

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?

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TOPICS: Hardware
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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.

Page 2: [Speeds and Feeds]  »

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.

Topic: Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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105 comments
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  • I'm envious of the experience you had, Jason.

    Unfortunately, as much as I would enjoy the ownership experience that driving a Volt would give me, that particular joy must forever remain unrequited. (As a retired automative power train engineer for a rival US automaker, all I can and will do is share a sense of nationalistic pride over GM's achievement.)

    Go USA!
    kenosha77a
  • Jason, I'm surprised you didn't comment about the Volt & iPhone connection!

    More specifically, are you aware of the Volt and it's smartphone app connection. Perhaps your readers would like to know about it.
    kenosha77a
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @kenosha7777 It's in the revised draft.
      jperlow
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @kenosha7777
      Also, who cares? Almost any mid-size car built in the last few years can connect to an iPhone or anything with a USB plug or Bluetooth. This isn't news or even interesting anymore.
      Ford building wifi into a car on the other hand, that's cool, that's innovative.
      kwabinalars
      • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

        @kwabinalars

        Ford manufactures and designs commendable and innovative vehicles.

        The fact that a mobile app was used to monitor the battery charging status of the Volt .. well .. I thought that was interesting.

        BTW, Chrysler offered WiFi availability on its Minivan and SUV line in 2008 and 2009. I sort of thought that was cool as well.
        kenosha77a
  • Of the future? It is a bad attempt to catch up to others

    Toyota and Honda had hybrid vehicles in the market for over 10 years. Ford had a hybrid model (w/ 1st gen Toyota engine) for about 5. Japan had electric vehicles since the 90's ... and Tesla is being selling the Roster since 2006.

    The Volt is nothing new ... just a "me-too" vehicle that although it is not late to the market it is unfortunately overpriced and has a range that makes it useless for anything but short distance drive.
    wackoae
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @wackoae The Volt is not a gasoline-focused vehicle like the other hybrids. GM also has traditional hybrids, but they've concentrated on the SUV and truck market to distinguish themselves from the others.

      http://www.gm.com/vehicles/results.jsp?fuel=hybrid&seo=goo_|_GMBP_Retention_|_GM.com_Hybrid_|_GM_Hybrid_|_gm_hybrid

      And at over 100 grand I'd hardly call the Tesla Roadster a vehicle for the average person.
      jperlow
    • Agreed

      Not to mention the new Tesla sedan is priced similarly and has a range comparable without the gas engine. Also, from what I have seen the new Tesla has more interior and cargo space.
      kwabinalars
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @wackoae Wow, did you read any of the article? Complete different approaches, and not worried about the battery dying. For a change, GM took an approach/concept and made it better -- kudos GM -- not something I am used to saying about American ingenuity.
      DaveRL
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @wackoae

      I have to disagree on that. In accordance with the boom of electric cars, GM has just launched chevy volt. it's merely called the car of the future for it possessed the most advanced technology in driving. and because of the public demand, it's finally on the market today. Compared to silverado, Volt brings th ease of driving. Apart from that, Volt is also equipped with safety features that would definitely make it more legit and sophisticated among other models. Above all, the manufacturer assures tunning as easy as people should expect. <a href="http://www.thepartsbin.com/guides/chevrolet.html">Chevrolet parts</a> are widely available nowadays. They could be easily found thru online shopping. There are also chevy auto service centers worldwide where future owners of this car could seek for help when they need it the most.
      lucycompton
  • Are we really reducing energy use

    ...or are we merely moving the energy consumption back to the coal/hydro/nuclear power plant that generates our electricity?<br><br>Environmental issues aside.<br><br>Let's say your use is 50mi/day x 5 days/wk x 52 wk/yr:<br>13,000 miles per year.<br>Daily charge of $1.50 x 5 x 52 = $390<br>Daily gas use of 2 gals regular (25mpg) cost: $6<br>$6 x 5 x 52 = $1560<br>Modestly priced car: $20,000.00<br>Annual Fuel cost 1,560.00<br> $21,560.00<br><br>GM Volt Price $41,000.00<br>Tax Credit: - 7,500.00<br>Annual Fuel Cost: $390.00<br>Total: $33,890.00<br><br>I am not including the realistic variation of overages to the assumption of 50 miles per day and also the realistic fuel cost for when the engine kicks in on hill climbs and aggressive passing.<br><br>Are the power plants that are now stoking the need for ECars environmentally clean? We are only moving the energy use back up to the power plant.<br><br><br><br>Fuel savings as realized over a 5 year period:<br><br>1560 x 5: 7800<br>390 x 5: 1950<br>Savings: 5850<br><br>41,000<br>- 7,500 Tax Credit<br>- 5850 Feul Savings<br>27,650<br><br>20,000 Feul-driven car<br> 7,800 Feul cost for 5 years @ 25mpg x $3/gal<br>27,800<br><br>So they work out pretty close in terms of unfinanced purchase cost and the annualized cost over 5 years.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate Well, this is really a separate issue. Indeed, if we all start moving to EVs, then we're going to need a cleaner and fossil fuel-free source of energy from our power plants. In my opinion, our best option is nuclear, and we're going to need to build a lot of them.
      jperlow
      • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

        @jperlow <br><br>Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.<br><br>So after polluting our planet you want us to use another polluting technology with a finite resource. Let's make some more radioactive holes and waste until the uranium runs out in a few more decades.<br><br>Fusion and renewable means we learned the lesson - apparently you haven't.

        Oh and the Volt costs less than my Prius, so it looks like a good buy.
        tonymcs1
      • All of the well-intentioned goals aside

        @jperlow

        Does the consumer accrue savings with this GM Volt?

        I seriously question if they do.
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

        @jperlow Specifying the Nuclear tech might help calm the heels of some of these jumpy attack drones who want to lay claim that everything we do is wrong. Uranium is a finite source. Thorium is also a finite source, but much more ample and can't be used for production of Nuclear warheads. Currently there is research on how to create small, manageable Thorium reactors that could easily reduce the need for coal. Other investments include BioMass and Windmill operations. Corporate farms have large amounts of biomass which could easily be used for power with the proper R&D. Right now, they can't see a fast enough ROI, so they don't bother.
        nucrash
      • @tonymcs

        when discussing stupidity, look in the mirror. With breeder reactor technology, known uranium reserves can power the world at current U.S. consumption levels for a million years. Add the known thorium reserves in India to the mix, and you're looking at about 5 million years. And, considering the a years' nuclear waste from a 1500 megawatt nuclear plant will fit in a 40-gallon trash bucket, the horrors of nuclear waste are also a sign of ignorance-driven hysteria on display.
        frgough
    • RE: GM's Volt: The Car of the Future?

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      Environmental issues aside????????

      Please go and tell that to the gulf coast residents of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. I'm sure they will agree with your point of view 100 percent.

      Edited to respond to Dietrich. (I wished your comment wasn't flagged)

      I "got it" .. I wasn't quite sure that you "got it" since you didn't include the cost of environmental disasters in your overly simplistic cost analysis figures. Heck .. while your at it, why don't you suggest we go back to leaded gas and eliminate all that unnecessary anti-pollution automative hardware. Gas would be a "Whole lot cheaper". We could save on rare earth metals by eliminating the catalytic convertor as well.

      Try to recognize the achievement of the Volt for what it is .. a leap forward in automotive technology that can only benefit mankind in the long run.
      kenosha77a
      • I am not minimizing or trivializing environmental issues

        @kenosha7777

        My discussion is strictly regarding the cost merits of owning a GM volt vs a 'typical' fuel-driven vehicle.

        Got it? Good!
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • Here's something most people don't realize

        @kenosha7777

        Your typical platinium catalytic converter is only 'efficient' at scavenging NOxides CO2 from the exhaust stream at no more than 2,000 rpm. Above that speed, the pollutants simply are introduced into the environment!

        So much for emission controls. They are expensive and add cost to the car, but really are not effective at reducing global emissions unless we all collectively sit in our cars at idle speed and go nowhere.

        Most consumers are only going to look at the Chevy Volt as a purchase if they can see they will truly save money over the life of the car ownership. If not, as I have shown (rough approximations), then there is no point to buying an ECar. The pollutants are still emitting but now moving up to the power generating plants.

        Thanks
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • Would that be the gulf coast residents who didn't

        see any environmental destruction at all because, wait for it... oil is BIODEGRADEABLE.

        There used to be a time when being ignorant was something to be ashamed of.
        frgough