The Chevy Volt has a lot riding on it.
Amid the chaos surrounding carmakers these days, the Volt represents a spark of hope. Buzz about the Volt has been building for years. Perhaps it will prove to be the smartly designed paradigm changer that can pull venerable GM out of the doldrums. Expectations are also high among car enthusiasts, futurists, and environmentally conscious consumers.
HispanicBusiness.com">HispanicBusiness.com had a chance to check out the production version of the Volt at the Los Angeles Auto Show. While we weren't allowed to actually take a seat in it, we can't deny the "wow" factor in the outward design of the car.
We also talked with Denise Gray, GM Engineering's Director of Hybrid Energy Storage Systems. She's the one with primary responsibility for the Volt's battery system, which, if it lives up to Gray's claims, could change how we look at commuting.
40 Crucial Miles
"The Volt represents technology at its best," Ms. Gray said. "Going 40 miles on the battery alone is a fundamental technological advancement."
While the gas engine, which should have about a 400-mile range, takes over after the battery's 40-mile limit is reached, using the Volt would translate to zero gasoline consumption for most commuters. GM didn't pick that 40-mile benchmark out of a hat. Rather, extensive research by GM determined that the 40-mile range would be enough for approximately 80 percent of commuters. It was that mileage range that Ms. Gray and her team worked from when building the car.
Ms. Gray said that the 40-mile requirement excites her as a technologist.
"The battery had to be large enough to give me what I needed for the Volt to go 40 miles one charge -- it's totally different from a hybrid, which doesn't have to go a long way on the battery," she said. "In the Volt, the battery is primary, while in hybrids it's secondary."
One of the most impressive aspects of Volt technology, according to Ms. Gray, is the vast degree of coordination between electronic controls that must take place.
An Orchestra Of Technology
"The number of computers that have to work in harmony to provide the 40 mile range is phenomenal from a controlled engineering and software approach," she stated. She mentioned that computer systems combine to synchronize the thermal system, the power, the battery, the motor, the switching mechanism, and more. While very complicated, Ms. Gray believes that it's a complex amount of orchestration "that's going to be very deserving of the amount of technology required to make it happen."
While the Volt's fans might be focused on late 2010, when it's due to hit the market, Ms. Gray and GM must take the long view. The Volt may be state of the art, but they aim to continue advancing their technology, even as the Volt nears commercial production.
What's The Next Gen Of The Next Gen?
What comes next?
"My bosses have already assigned that to me," Ms. Gray responded. "There are hundreds of components in the battery pack that I'll try to reduce, to increase cost effectiveness."
She indicated that the next generation of the Volt also needs to have a battery system lighter weight and has more functionality. She's already assembled a team to begin working on that path, even as the final touches are put on the Volt. While long-range, multi-track planning could be seen as a challenge, Ms. Gray says that the corporate culture and support from GM enables her to get it done. She's pulling GM's "awesome" research and design arm in to support her team,
"Just about two weeks ago we discussed the next generation designs -- electric chemistry, electronics design, etc.," she said. "Not just me by myself, but a cast of thousands. That's a great thing about GM; it's a big company with a strong heritage, and an extremely good R&D."
Taking The Show On The Road
Although the availability of the car is still a while off by some measures (notably antsy consumers that can afford the speculated near-$40,000 price tag), GM believes it's very important to keep the Volt and its development very public and transparent.
"We've committed to let the industry media know how we're developing the vehicle and battery, so you can in essence walk with us as we go along with this path," said Ms. Gray. "Our supply base, as well as utilities, infrastructure, and government are coming along with us too, so we'll continue to provide visibility and allow everyone to check in on how we're doing."
Indeed, while the Volt can seat a nuclear family in comfort, it's towing many passengers -- and, in a sense, the entire industry -- along its path.
Oh, and it's pretty darned cool too.
All photos by Matt Graves
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