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GM always knew that the hardest part of building the Volt would be harnessing the still young lithium-ion technology to create the right battery for the job. In a normal development process, GM would work with batterymakers to design and test the power packs, then begin making the car itself. But these aren't normal times at GM, a company that lost $15.5 billion in the second quarter of 2008 alone; that surrendered the aura of technological leadership to Toyota; that finds itself squeezed between tightening fuel-economy standards and a fleet that is still shifting from trucks and SUVs. So the order went out to design the batteries and the car simultaneously, with the aim of putting Volts for sale in the "tens of thousands," according to Lutz, by the end of 2010.
On Sept. 16, 2008, GM's 100th birthday, the company further committed to its self-imposed deadline by unveiling the final production design of the Volt: a sleek and aerodynamic body that still looks more like a family sedan than a car of the future. Now it will be up to the team in the company's advanced battery lab to make good on the 2010 pledge.
That unit, led by engineer Denise Gray, is currently putting various lithium-ion modules through their paces, cycling them through charges and testing them in warm and cold conditions, with the aim of ensuring the packs can run safely for at least 150,000 miles of driving. The technology has had its problems in other applications recall the lithium-ion batteries that caught on fire in Sony laptops in 2006. But so far, GM says, theirs are performing well, an assessment confirmed by outside analysts. The test packs I'm shown have gone through the equivalent of about 22,000 miles of driving, and the peppy Gray who seems to be lithium-ion-powered herself says they're still going strong.
Even if the technology is ready by the end of 2010, critics doubt that manufacturers will be able to produce the batteries at scale by then or cheaply enough to make the Volt remotely affordable. (Lutz says he's "shooting for $40,000 or less," which would still be a stiff premium for what is, high tech aside, a family car.) Menahem Anderman, the founder of Total Battery Consulting, believes that it should take GM four to five years to develop and test new lithium-ion packs. "I'd like to be wrong," he says. "But it's difficult to see how they can succeed."
Toyota, GM's bête noire, seems to agree. Six months after GM unveiled the Volt concept in 2007, Toyota announced it was already test-driving plug-in hybrids cars that adhere to the two-engine model of all hybrids but allow the battery to plug into the grid and pick up an extra charge while parked. Toyota has been as quiet about its plug-in plans as GM has been loud about the Volt, but it does seem that the Japanese company takes a more skeptical view of lithium technology. "Our thinking is of a smaller battery with a lower initial cost [for the consumer]," says Tasatami Takimoto, Toyota's executive vice president for green tech.
No matter when the Volt hits the showrooms, it seems unlikely to appear in large numbers right away. In a July filing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM said the Volt and other plug-ins would be "low-volume applications" until 2015 and that the government shouldn't take the technology into account when devising new fuel-economy rules. To Lutz, any initial success of the Volt matters less than GM's ability to improve and adapt the car's system across its entire fleet. "This is generation-one technology, and it's been developed very fast," he says. "Generation two is already in the hopper, and generation three is being worked on."
GM and the rest of the auto industry can't go through those generations fast enough. More than hydrogen fuel cells (perpetually 10 to 15 years off) and cellulosic ethanol (ditto), electric cars represent a promising near-term solution to America's oil addiction. The infrastructure to support electric cars exists today it's called the electric grid, and we can all tap into it in our homes. Electricity is far cheaper than the cheapest oil plug-ins generally run on the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon. Even with America's current electrical supply, which is more than 50% coal-generated, switching to plug-ins will reduce greenhouse gases, and as the grid gets cleaner and cleaner, those savings will only increase. A joint study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that by 2050, widespread adoption of plug-ins could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 450 million metric tons annually equivalent to removing 82.5 million passenger cars from the road.
Nor would plug-ins overwhelm the electrical grid. Because utilities need to keep excess capacity available to meet rare peak-power events a bit like a hotel holding 20 extra empty rooms for a convention that happens once a year there's plenty of electricity to power plug-ins, provided they charge at off-peak times. A study by the Pacific National Northwest Laboratory found that the grid could power 73% of the nation's car fleet without adding a single new plant, provided most of the charging was done at night.
The Volt may not be the only way to kick the oil habit, but the sheer excitement the unfinished car has generated more than 30,000 people have joined an unofficial waiting list indicates that GM has taken the lead in the race for tomorrow's car. The real question may be whether the company, still bleeding revenue in a depressed market, can survive until the Volt arrives. Lutz has no doubt. "This is the last program we would ever cut," he insists. "Even as we face the Grim Reaper, we would still be spending money on the Volt." Let's hope so. When it comes to the Volt, what's good for General Motors could once again be good for America.
With reporting by Coco Masters, Yuki Oda and Michiko Toyama / Tokyo