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Sunday, 07 January 2007 20:19

GM revives the Electric Car - mostly


Known for killing the first electric car of the modern era, the EV-1, GM has done an about face and is showing off the Chevrolet Volt at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Hooray! But one caveat - it's still a hybrid, and it's not available until 'the end of the decade'.

Can it really be true? A major car company, the one that ‘killed’ the electric car, is finally bringing one back. GM’s website has an interesting press release with all the details, but no doubt we’ll be reading much more about their new car in the days ahead as the Detroit Auto Show kicks off next week.

Using what GM term the ‘E-flex System’, or their ‘next-generation electric propulsion system’, they promise that the car could nearly eliminate trips to the gas/petrol station.

It’s been built into the concept sedan known as the Chevrolet Volt, a battery-powered, four-passenger electric vehicle that uses a gas engine to create additional electricity to extend its range. There’s plenty more, so do read on, but there is one major downside: the car won’t be available until ‘the end’ of the decade. Still, that’s just under 3 years away, so we won’t have too long to wait, although anyone paying high gas/petrol prices would probably like one these cars right away.

According to GM, they’ve learned a lot since they launched the EV-1 back in 1996. GM Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz says that “The EV1 was the benchmark in battery technology and was a tremendous achievement. Even so, electric vehicles, in general, had limitations. They had limited range, limited room for passengers or luggage, couldn’t climb a hill or run the air conditioning without depleting the battery, and had no device to get you home when the battery’s charge ran low”.

So far, it sounds like a bunch of excuses for not continuing development of the EV-1. Nevertheless, Lutz presses on and says that “The Chevrolet Volt is a new type of electric vehicle. It addresses the range problem and has room for passengers and their stuff. You can climb a hill or turn on the air conditioning and not worry about it.”

According to the press release, the Volt can be fully charged by plugging it into a 110-volt outlet for approximately six hours a day. When the lithium-ion battery is fully charged, the Volt can deliver 40 city miles of pure electric vehicle range. When the battery is depleted, a 1L, three-cylinder turbocharged engine spins at a constant speed, or revolutions per minute (rpm), to create electricity and replenish the battery. According to Lutz, this increases the fuel economy and range.

So, the Volt is clearly not an all-electric car like the Tesla Roadster,, a car that gets 250 miles per charge, costs less than 1c per mile, goes from 0 to 60mph in less than 4 seconds and has 90% fewer parts than a convention car (or hybrid) as it has no gas/petrol engine at all to deal with. The Tesla Roadster also fully recharges in around 3 hours.
But back to the Volt. According to Lutz, “If you lived within 30 miles from work (60 miles round trip) and charged your vehicle every night when you came home or during the day at work, you would get 150 miles per gallon. More than half of all Americans live within 20 miles of where they work (40 miles round trip). In that case, you might never burn a drop of gas during the life of the car.”

To show how ecologically sensitive and efficient GM are, they promise that the Chevrolet Volt can also run on E85, a fuel blend that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (petrol). GM assure us that “Using E85, fuel economy of 150 mpg would translate into more than 525 miles per petroleum gallon”.

So what happens if you forget to charge your car when you get home at night? Read onto the next page to find out!

GM tell us that “In the event a driver forgets to charge the vehicle or goes on a vacation far away, the Volt would still get 50 mpg by using the engine to convert gasoline into electricity and extending its range up to 640 miles, more than double that of today’s conventional vehicles”.

It’s important to know what kind of battery technology GM are planning to use. GM’s press release says that a large lithium-ion battery is needed. Despite the fact that Tesla Motors already use lithium-ion battery technology, GM is practically insisting that the technology is not yet up to scratch. According to their press release, they say that “This type of electric car, which the technical community calls an “EV range-extender,” would require a battery pack that weighs nearly 400 pounds (181 kg). Some experts predict that such a battery – or a similar battery – could be production-ready by 2010 to 2012”.

Sadly, GM and other car companies are still fixated on the idea that hybrid engines are a good idea. This is probably because they sell all the replacement parts that you’ll eventually need in a complex gas engine, which would probably be even more complex and numerous in a hybrid engine.

To that end, we have to endure GM’s boast that they have hybrid technology covered. Jon Lauckner, GM vice president of Global Program Management, says that: "That’s why we are also showing a variant of the Chevrolet Volt with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, instead of a gasoline engine EV range-extender. Or, you might have a diesel engine driving the generator to create electricity, using bio-diesel. Finally, an engine using 100-percent ethanol might be factored into the mix. The point is, all of these alternatives are possible with the E-Flex System.”

Of course, Telsa Motors have shown us all that the alternatives are simply unnecessary with a purely electric motor. Hybrids are a distraction, something to keep the gas loving public happy. But eventually the public will realize that a hybrid engine simply wasn’t a necessary step, especially as fast charging technology enables a car to be fully recharged in only a few minutes. Companies like Toshiba announced such a breakthrough last year, with production due to come online around the same time that GM are promising the Volt’s rubber will hit the road.

Larry Burns, GM vice president for research and development and strategic planning, clearly knows the damage that dirty gas engines have had on the world, yet he still wants to keep on making them, even though they now say that electric is their focus.

Burns says that “Whether your concern is energy security, global climate change, natural disasters, the high price of gas, the volatile pricing of a barrel of oil and the effect that unpredictability has on Wall Street – all of these issues point to a need for energy diversity. Today, there are more than 800 million cars and trucks in the world. In 15 years, that will grow to 1.1 billion vehicles. We can’t continue to be 98-percent dependent on oil to meet our transportation needs. Something has to give. We think the Chevrolet Volt helps bring about the diversity that is needed. If electricity met only 10 percent of the world’s transportation needs, the impact would be huge.”

Of course, the impact would be even more huge if we transitioned to fully electric cars instead of the half-way step of a hybrid vehicle.

Burns says that “The DNA of the automobile has not changed in more than 100 years. “Vehicles still operate in pretty much the same fashion as when Karl Benz introduced the ‘horseless carriage’ in 1886”.

Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Back in the early 1900’s, there were cars that ran on gas/petrol, steam and electricity.  Gas won because it was cheap. How sad it is for the world that electric cars did not win the race 100 years ago – we’d be living in a very different world today.

But, thankfully, GM is finally putting electric cars firmly back at the top of their priorities, even as they continue flirting with the manufactured need for a hybrid engine. Burns says that “While mechanical propulsion will be with us for many decades to come, GM sees a market for various forms of electric vehicles, including fuel cells and electric vehicles using gas and diesel engines to extend the range. With our new E-flex concept, we can produce electricity from gasoline, ethanol, bio-diesel or hydrogen”.

He continues that “We can tailor the propulsion to meet the specific needs and infrastructure of a given market. For example, somebody in Brazil might use 100-percent ethanol (E100) to power an engine generator and battery. A customer in Shanghai might get hydrogen from the sun and create electricity in a fuel cell. Meanwhile, a customer in Sweden might use wood to create bio-diesel.”

All of that is good and well, but if Tesla Motors can make a powerful electric only car today, without need for any wood powered bio-diesel from the forests of Sweden, with engines dramatically less complicated than hybrid engines, most of these alternatives are just sweet sounding distractions that are simply not needed.

Want to know more? Visit GM’s website to read the entire press release and look out for plenty of news about the Volt in the week to come all over the Internet.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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