"GM is moving from a company that, for 100 years, has been based on mechanically driven automobiles, to one that will eventually be focused on electrically driven vehicles," GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz told reporters at the Los Angeles Auto Show last December. "This is a big deal."
GM's well-publicized first major step in this transformation is the Chevy Volt, scheduled to hit showrooms in November. GM describes the Volt as an extended-range electric vehicle. For up to 40 miles, the Volt can operate off its 16 kWh lithium ion battery pack. When the battery is discharged, the Volt's gasoline-powered engine kicks in to generate electricity to power the car. With this set-up, the Volt can travel more than 300 miles before re-charging or refueling is needed. Lutz says that "eliminates the range anxiety' of electric-only vehicles -- the fear of being stranded by a depleted battery."
GM says this technology combination means the Volt can achieve city fuel-economy equivalent to at least 230 miles per gallon. Based on a cost of electricity of 11 cents per kWh, GM explains, a Volt would cost $2.75 for electricity to travel 100 miles, or less than 3 cents per mile.
GM is investing heavily in research, testing and manufacturing facilities to pursue its electrification strategy. The company is spending $336 million in its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to produce the Volt. Other Michigan investments include $43 million for its Brownstown Battery Pack Assembly Plant, where the more than 200 battery cells used in each Volt are processed and installed into modules by flexible automated equipment and then delivered to the battery pack main line, as well as tooling and various components from five other plants. The lithium ion cells are manufactured by LG Chem.
The current battery pack weighs nearly 400 pounds and is expensive. Some estimates put it at more than $5,000. Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for global electric vehicles at GM, expects to see "dramatic improvements" in the battery technology and cost factor as GM and others ramp up both research and production volumes. "We are already working on a gen-two vehicle and battery program," says Posawatz. "We think we can take half the cost out of the battery."
The first pre-production Chevrolet Volt rolls off the production line.
While Posawatz credits start-up electric car manufacturers for their innovations, he says they want GM to succeed with the Volt and other electric-car initiatives because only the large-car manufacturers can drive the volumes necessary to attract more suppliers and reduce component costs. "Even the Volt had difficulty getting suppliers. When I went to get charger suppliers, basically the only guys out there were golf cart charger suppliers. They couldn't even approach our specs," he recalls.
Now on the brink of producing the Volt, Posawatz, who was tapped as "employee No. 1" in the Volt program in March 2006, says its development "has indicated to us that we can be technology leaders again." Moreover, he says the Volt serves to "shine a light" on other high-quality GM products and help consumers "revisit the relationship they have had with GM." If it does do that, the Volt will have given battered GM just the shot in the arm it needs to put itself back on a profitable path.