GM's New Entry in the Electric Hybrid Race

Wired has a nice article on GM's new concept car, the Chevy Volt. The Volt is being released today at the North American International Auto Show and is a first in a series they're calling the E-Flex line. As the article and the accompanying blog post point out, between the "full hybrids" such as the Prius and the Civic, and GM's partial hybrids, and now plug-in hybrids, this new entry is likely to create more than a little confusion, but marketing problems aside, the technology here seems pretty exciting. E-Flex vehicles will be fully electric drive vehicles, meaning they have an electric motor driving the wheels instead of a transmission powered by an internal combustion engine or an ICE assisted by an electric motor. To avoid the problem that the EV1 and most other electric vehicles have had in terms of limited range and long-recharge times, the E-Flex line will have an electric generator powered by a small internal combustion engine and sized to be powerful enough to drive the car 70 mph while also recharging the battery (or you can drive up to 100 mph and at least not further deplete the battery).

The E-Flex design also offers GM flexibility. The ICE can be replaced with a diesel engine, an pure ethanol engine, or flex-fuel engine (that can run on ethanol or gasoline), or even a fuel cell eventually (which would also replace the generator). I asked the GM folks if they have specific plans to release at least the flex-fuel version and they said definitely. That means the line of vehicles could finally give people some real choice--plug your car in, fill it up with gasoline, or fill it up with ethanol.

A base charge of the batteries, which can be done from a house-hold outlet, plus a full tank of gas will drive the car about 600 miles or the equivalent of about 50 miles per gallon. The batteries should be enough to drive the car between 30 and 40 miles--about the length of an average commute--and the system is designed to use the batteries to their fullest before engaging the generator, so a lot of people could go to work and back without using any gasoline.

The Volt also boasts some cool plastic components made by GE that are made from recycled plastic bottles, are lighter (thus savings energy during driving), and safer for people inside and outside the vehicle in a crash. Light-weight materials are regularly sighted as a way to improve the fuel economy performance of vehicles without sacrificing performance, so it's nice to see an auto manufacturer finally using them and making a big deal out of it.

Or it will be, because of course that's the catch on all of this. The Volt being shown off today is just a concept vehicle. On the media briefing that I listened into, GM made a big deal out of having their production folks already involved, but they want the batteries to come down in cost to $2-3,000 form the current $10,000. Either someone is going to have to do a lot of forward pricing, so this going to remain a cool idea for a while.

My only major complaint, and some will say I'm nitpicking or just out of touch with America, is that the styling for this vehicle is just too sporty. It looks like a hotrod racing rocket. Don't get me wrong, the little boy in me loves the way it looks. But if you're building an eco-car, at least a major part of your target audience has to be the urban and suburban eco-parents, like myself. Assuming GM actually starts producing the Volt, I think I might feel a little silly trying to trundle my two little daughters intro the backseat. I would worry my friends would assume I was heading into my midlife crisis and that the trophy wife would be not far behind the sports car.

Of course, another major part of the target audience are the tech-heads. And the design may be perfect for them. So I hope I'm wrong that the car is just too cool. Time will tell--both if I'm wrong and if we even get to find out.

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