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Key program team members on the Chevy Volt
Many of the key team managers and designers gather around the trend-setting Chevy Volt E-Flex extended range electric car, which is currently undergoing styling changes to make it production ready.

Chevy Volt: Virtually Real

General Motors gives 80 journalists... and me... unprecedented access to its Chevrolet Volt E-Flex program.

By Bill Moore

By her account, Denise Gray spends more time in General Motor's Global Visualization Lab than just about anywhere else on the company's sprawling Warren, Michigan campus.

Gray is the "energy storage lady", officially the Director of Hybrid Storage Systems, a rapidly evolving part of the company that includes the NiMH batteries that go in GM's B.A.S. (belt alternator starter) hybrids, two-mode hybrids and now the lithium ion batteries that will power the Volt and its successors... and yes there is a Gen 2 Volt in the works.

It's easy to see why she finds herself in this long, narrow "theater" with its wall-sized projection screen. Not only can she video conference with her GM colleagues in Germany who are also working on the batteries for the Volt, but she also can see the vehicle being built, piece by piece in 3D virtual reality, just as GM did for us, stopping just before showing us what the evolving car will look like.

But what we did see -- aided by special 3D goggles -- is a groundbreaking vehicle that will become the sire to a family of global vehicles that will use GM's new Delta global car platform and sport its E-Flex range-extended electric drive power train.

What GM wanted most of all to show us was that the Volt program is real. It isn't some phony greenwash PR stunt, a cheap propaganda effort to raise its stock in the eyes of the market and the public.

As Doug Drauch, who led my group through the Battery Lab, commented to me, "We're not spending 12 and 14 hours here and 16 to 18 hours out at Milford (proving grounds) every day for smoke and mirrors."

It is obvious that the Volt program has been given a high priority at GM. From the amount of time it has booked in the massive wind tunnel to its oversight board comprised of key program managers and senior corporation officers, this car program may be as close to a "war-time" development program as we've seen since the early 1940's when Detroit switched from building cars to turning out tanks and canons and planes for the war effort. While the aim isn't to beat the Axis, it is to beat the self-imposed and admittedly challenging 2010 deadline.

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Appropriately, the 3D presentation in the Visualization Lab began with the battery case, a 180kg (390 lbs), T-shaped mass that is the soul of the machine. It not only houses the 16kWh lithium ion battery pack, but also assumes the role of the keel of the car providing vehicle stiffness.

A few keystrokes produces the chassis pan into which the battery T is bolted. It is because of this tunnel running down the spin of the cabin that the car will eventually seat four passengers, instead of five. As GM designers explained it, trying to make room for that middle fifth seat would have forced them to raise the roof, disrupting the car's finely tuned but still evolving co-efficient of drag, which is "somewhere south of 0.30" according to VP of Product Development John Lauckner, who smiled wryly at my attempt to coax the number out of him.

"Nice try, Bill."

The fifth seat also would have unacceptably altered the appearance of the vehicle beyond the changes that have already begun to creep into the design. While the original concept car was critically acclaimed at its 2007 debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit -- which surprised many GM executives -- it also had the aerodynamic profile of a brick. Co-chairman Bob Lutz, whom I had the chance to ask a few questions during the dinner reception after the tour, is reputed to have said the car would have been more efficient if it were turned around with the back as the front. That is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration, but GM engineers admit they didn't take a lot of time tweaking the original design before building the concept vehicle. It was the E-Flex system that they were highlighting as much as the Volt's rakish design styling.

While Bob Boniface, the Volt's lead designer for both the exterior and interior design teams, teased the assembled reporters by showing a little "leg" on a tarpaulin-covered full-scale clay model, we did learn a little about some of the design changes that include lengthening the front overhang and slightly stretching out the rear spoiler. Based on continual tweaking in the wind tunnel and virtual design lab, the design is getting a combination of more rounded (front) and abrupt edges (rear). From what we could see -- given the duct tape camouflage on the 1/3 scale model in the wind tunnel and the tarps on the pair of design studio models, the production car will likely lose some of the pronounced, muscular wheel wells of the concept. The glass roof is also probably history based on comments about the recycled material used in the headliner, though the company is evaluating the value of integrated solar panels.

Looking at the drape-covered clay model with its exposed right rear corner, one reporter cynically commented -- to the embarrassment of a red-face Boniface -- that it was too much like a Prius. That's probably an unfair criticism given how little of the vehicle we were actually shown. You could just as easily compared it to an older model Dodge Status. The ultimate aim of the Volt is a achieve an aesthetically pleasing compromise between the realities of aerodynamics and engineering and the original, trend-setting styling of the concept car.

We did learn that GM tested a full size Prius in their wind tunnel and found their numbers were different from Toyotas and that the production Volt is now showing nearly identical numbers, which represents a 30% improvement over the concept Volt.

As we discovered during the tour those refinements -- even the smallest -- can add up. In the wind tunnel we learned that 90 percent of the drag on a car is the suction created by air swirling around the rear of the vehicle. Smoothing the flow of that air is essential in any car, but especially in an electric one like the Volt where at highway speeds 10 design "counts" -- a system used by the engineers and stylists to assess millimeter-scale changes in a design -- translates into 0.55 miles of range.

While it kept its car under wraps, GM was more forthcoming in showing us what the interior of the car will look like. While everything -- from the seats to the dash -- were still in clay, it did give a good idea of what the designers intend. The final design is a blending of two earlier styling exercises and does convey a futurist feel in which the dash sweeps around into the door panels. The team decided to retain the familiar console-style shifter, concluding that customers would prefer the intuitive transparency it represents. There will, however, be no keys. The vehicle will use a wireless key fob that will pre-start some of the car's electronics as you walk up to the vehicle. To start the electric drive, you press a button similar in concept to the Prius that is mounted next to the shifter, which is neatly integrated into the center console/dash.

Mounted between the seat buck -- a full-scale wood and foam mockup of the vehicle cabin -- and another milling machine sculpting a full-scale seat using math data from the network, was a large poster that explained the styling concepts inspiring the interior design. These are listed in the following order:

The latter was illustrated by images of a Segway, an Apple Nano and iphone, as well as other clean, modern styling elements.

Over dinner with Posawatz, we discussed what kind of information drivers would want to see. How do you display available energy in a car that combines both electric drive and an E-85 Flex-fueled engine generator? Do you show both gallons of fuel in the tank, which has shrunk to a single tank that GM is now estimating will give the car 350-400 miles range, instead of the original 640 projected for the concept car. Do you display digital bars of remaining energy in the battery pack similar to my Insight? Which is more important in a car where the engine may seldom turn on for days or weeks?

Posawatz explained to those of us at his table that based on data collected by the State of California from black boxes mounted in the cars of some 600 driver, GM engineers now believe that two-thirds of Volt owners will drive the car all week and never see the engine come on, running strictly on battery power alone.

Which poses interesting questions such as what do you do with "stale" fuel in the tank? How do you handle evaporative emissions from the tank when there's no fuel being burned in the engine? How often do you fire up the engine just to keep it properly lubricated?

But the biggest question of all is can they get the car on the road by 2010? Skeptics abound including my friend and colleague Bill Reinert at Toyota who GM quoted in their opening presentation as saying something to the effect that if GM wants to hit the rapidly approaching 2010 target launch date, "they should be picking the wood for the dash, not still messing about with the battery."

Like competing sports teams, comments like that only spur on the opposing team.

So, will they make it? They have a total of six prototype battery packs; four from Compact Power, Inc. and two from Continental using A123 cells. They've yet to bend a single sheet of metal other than the virtual kind and they're still refining the design in clay, literally millimeters at a time.

According to GM executives and engineers, they are exactly where they need to be to hit their target date. They are using accelerated life testing to compress years of battery service -- hard battery service -- into months. They are comfortable with both of the lithium chemistries they are testing and will be installing the first full CPI pack into the first of their test mules -- modified 2005 Chevy Malibus -- this coming week. The first car was up on the hoist in the Battery Lab and ready to receive the pack that was siting on the floor below it.

Coincidentally, GM brought in EV1 Vin 001, the very first EV1 off the production line for us to see, as well the battery container that originally was used in the one-off, four passenger stretch version of the car. The idea was to demonstrated the progress since 1999. The new battery is roughly half the volume and one-third the weight: 544 kg vs 180 kg.

The three Malibu mules have been running on NiMH batteries for the last six months, and while they have only about a mile of electric-only range, we were told this is adequate for the initial development of the control software and engine generator testing.

The big concern is costs, which just keep edging up, in part because there are only so many companies that make many of the components for the E-Flex system. Will it cost $48,000 as an MSNBC article recently speculated, quoting Bob Lutz?

Lutz read the article to a group of us from his Blackberry with obvious relish during the dinner reception. Certainly, the first run of cars could cost GM that much, but Lutz has also said that the company is prepared to take a loss, just as Toyota is speculated to have done on its original Prius. Ten years ago, auto industry analysts estimated each Prius cost around $35,000 to produce while the company was selling it for less than $20,000. That initial investment allowed Toyota to eventually dominate the hybrid vehicle market.

But escalating cost is no laughing matter for the development team, and one suspects that the selection of the battery supplier may ultimately come down to cost: who can deliver the assembled packs at a price point that GM can accept and still be competitive? From comments Posawatz and others made, they are clearly pleased by the performance of both companies' cells. And GM battery engineers believe they have discovered their "sweet spots" that will allow them to deliver their promised 40 miles of range for 10 years or 150,000 miles; a trick made feasible by keeping the batteries at a comfortable 20-25 ° C (68-77 ° F ) using liquid cooling and heating, and by using only 8kWh of the 16kWh of available energy in the pack.

And in case you're wondering why GM doesn't consider offering a smaller battery pack to help reduce costs, it is, but not on the first generation Volt. As Frank Weber, who has overall responsibility for the program, stressed to us, this car is a technological stretch program for GM and it will remain that.

Has GM considered adapting the "sell-the-car-and-lease-the-battery" concept, I asked? The reply was we're considering it and if someone -- presumably a leasing company or utility -- comes along with a business model that makes sense, then GM will listen. As for selling the cars, there will be none of the leasing games GM played with the EV1. You pay your cash, you own your car, period.

And what if GM misses its 2010 date, I asked Posawatz late in the evening?

We will have cars on the road before then, he assured me and GM engineers will do everything they can conceive of to abuse them in every type of driving condition and weather imaginable. Like its trucks, the Volt will be Chevy Tough.

And when he and his team are confident the car will live up to its promise, they will go on sale; and the target date is... 2010.

Times Article Viewed: 34256
Published: 04-Apr-2008

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