The Chevrolet Volt concept seems to be causing the biggest stir among news coming out of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's a series hybrid, which is a car design that some people have been wanting for decades now. Think diesel-electric train, but with batteries between the diesel part and the electric part to allow the engine to be smaller and yet still have the reserves to provide fast acceleration. The Volt also adds in a plug-in capability, so it can run off of electrical grid power.
Of course, there are people who have done this before. GM has just managed to make a big splash because it's a hot-rod design that they insist on calling an electric vehicle with an "EV range extender" rather than a hybrid. Of course, they're trying to make the obvious even more clear: The electric part doesn't care how the energy is generated. The show car has a 1-liter 3-cylinder engine that can run on gasoline or E85, but you could have a pure ethanol engine, a diesel engine, a turbine, or go ahead and scrap both the engine and generator and put in fuel cells instead. Well, if fuel cells ever cost less than megabucks, anyway...
I think I might start referring to this event as "The Big Duh" since it's a good way to bridge from current cars running only internal combustion engines toward cars that are either purely electric (that's where I'd put my bets) or running some sort of fuel cell (hydrogen or otherwise—I prefer otherwise). Given the troubles facing hydrogen transport and storage, using a car that uses batteries as the primary storage and hydrogen for secondary energy might be the best way to go. Of course, from watching a video of the "reveal," I could tell that GM still thinks that hydrogen will be the primary energy "source" eventually.
As I was saying, this type of vehicle has been envisioned before. However, for me personally, I've mostly been thinking of series hybrids by themselves, and haven't given the plug-in hybrid enthusiasts enough credit. GM did a good thing, whether they ultimately benefit from it or not, of promoting the concept of a vehicle that can run purely on electricity most of the time, and only switch over to being a hybrid when the grid-supplied power runs low.
That being said, there isn't much preventing GM from producing the car right away, albeit with a smaller battery pack. Doing some rough calculations, the Volt needs a 16 kilowatt-hour pack, about 30% of the size of the one in the Tesla Roadster. The Tesla Roadster costs about $90,000 for the base model, with a fully-loaded vehicle costing $100,000. Not all of that cost goes to the vehicle itself, as they openly state that they overprice it to gain funding for future projects. Subtract that and the cost of the Lotus Elise-based chassis and components, and you're still looking at tens of thousands of dollars for the batteries and other drivetrain bits.
Based on that, I presume the 16 kWh pack for the Volt would run in the $10,000+ range, which is quite a lot. But, if you cut that down to a tenth of its size, you've still got a good hybrid vehicle that runs mostly gasoline—Okay, you've pretty much got a sportier Prius, but you'd still get a 50mpg 4-seater with sportscar performance. With the way the battery pack is laid out on the thing (a column running along the centerline, right where a driveshaft would be in a RWD car), you could easily make it an option to get bigger pure electric range—$1,250 for every extra five miles, for instance. "I want my car with three electric bricks please!"
Well, anyway, I think the Volt looks very nice, even though a lot of the bits seem very impractical. The windshield is tiny, though I suppose that's not a big deal if it's fairly close to the driver. The whole side window arrangement with arched plastic bits to have a high "beltline" yet still allowing light in is interesting, but weird. And, well, even if the Volt never sees the light of day, the "E-Flex Propulsion System" will apparently live on in some form—GM says that a new vehicle platform due in 2009 will be designed to accept it, though who knows if anything will ever use it.Posted by mike at January 10, 2007 10:44 AM | Car