The Chevy Volt Electric Vehicle
“We couldn’t afford to lose any more money on a program that appealed to a very small number of people. As great as it was, it would go about 100 miles and take about six to eight hours to charge.”
General Motors Spokesman Dave Barthmuss on the EV-1 in The New York Times, 29 Sep 05
Just 15 months after Mr Barthmuss explained why GM’s EV-1 electric vehicle had no place in the company’s future, GM is back with a mass production electric vehicle, the Chevy Volt.
Bob Lutz introducing the Volt at Detroit Auto Show, Jan 07
The Volt will be powered by GM’s “E-flex” design, which the company plans to incorporate not just into the Volt but also into additional models to be produced by Saturn and GMC.
The only problem, and it’s a significant one, is that the battery technology is not ready yet. GM has a vehicle design but lacks the technology to power it.
The company’s suppliers are working on it, however. GM has contracted with a range of smaller companies, with names like A123 Systems and Energy Conversion Devices, to deliver a lithium ion battery that can run one of its electric vehicles for forty miles before requiring a charge.
Back in October 2005, Ed Tuttle predicted the rise of these kind of “plug-in” hybrids. Ed is a Managing Principal at Analysis Group and follows the electric vehicle industry closely. I recently asked him what he thought of the Volt, and he noted:
“I am pretty excited about the Volt. My main reason is the architecture — it’s a modular serial hybrid, meaning that the ICE [internal combustion engine] can work at optimal efficiency as a generator, the e-drive can be “pure,” and the ICE unit can be replaced in later applications with a diesel, a fuel cell or anything else that can generate the electricity.
“E-drive with a modular generator is much more the future than parallel hybrids where all the ICE drive apparatus (transmission, etc) is still in place along with the e-drive. So I like the fact that GM is working with a hybrid that feels like it has a future rather than parallel hybrids, which just feel like the final evolution of the traditional ICE architecture….
“My fear for GM would be that they get to market first but make some poor specification decisions and/or fail to adapt and improve fast enough and find that later adopters of the architecture eat their lunch.”
Ed Tuttle email 11 Jan 07
Personally, I would like the Volt to succeed. GM’s announcement is audacious and points to a desire for big innovations from a company that has been lacking them for a long time.
Still, I wouldn’t buy GM stock on the promise of the Volt or the E-drive system. The Volt tries to “schedule invention” by anticipating breakthroughs in battery technology, and this is a classic pitfall in product development. When the invention arrives, it often comes with a different form or in a different timeframe than managers had anticipated.
GM acknowledges this unusual deficiency – it can’t say when the Volt will be produced, or even give a sense of how much it will cost. The company can, however, demonstrate its commitment to this radically new vehicle platform. After all, it’s still the largest auto manufacturer in the world (although it will probably lose that title to Toyota in 2007).
And this kind of public commitment from large automakers is vital in creating widespread acceptance of electric vehicles. As Felix Kramer, who founded the non-profit group CalCars, told The New York Times:
“We commend GM for being the first out of the starting gate in the great plug-in car race of 2007”
Felix Kramer in The New York Times, 7 Jan 07
- This is the third part of a series on innovation and electric vehicles. The first part looked at lead users in California. The second part looked at electric vehicles “crossing the chasm.”
- Here’s a link to a page that contains a video of Rick Wagoner of GM introducing the Chevy Volt.
- Recent reporting on the Volt comes from a 7 Jan 07 story in The New York Times. That’s available here.
- My December 05 update on General Motors and its brushes with innovation is here.
- Ed Tuttle is a Managing Principal at Analysis Group, Inc. Their website is here.