TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.
Early versions of the Chevrolet Volt’s battery packs are powerful enough to run the high-stakes rechargeable car that General Motors hopes to start selling in 2010, but dozens of issues remain before the revolutionary vehicle appears in showrooms.
The Volt’s chief engineer is on a tight schedule to figure out how the car will handle the weight of the batteries, dissipate their heat and mechanically transfer their power to the wheels. That’s not to mention the list of issues that have nothing to do with the fact that the car plugs into a wall outlet for recharging.
But the 47-year-old veteran GM engineer who was recruited from a GM post in Germany to run the high-profile project is driven by knowing the entire company’s future could rest on it.
“At this point, there’s nothing standing in our way of continuing to do what we said we’re going to do,” Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer, said in a recent interview.
Work on the Volt, introduced as a concept car at the 2007 Detroit auto show, has taken on a more urgent pace with gasoline hovering near $4 per gallon and the U.S. auto market dramatically shifting from trucks to cars.
The car is designed to run on an electric motor powered by a battery pack. Drivers will recharge the vehicle from a standard home wall outlet.
The Volt will be able to travel 40 miles on a full charge, and a small gasoline engine will recharge the batteries to keep it rolling on longer trips. GM says the vehicle will get the equivalent of 150 miles per gallon.
But for now, as a new commercial airing during the Olympics touts the Volt as the pinnacle of GM’s fuel economy improvements and hybrid lineup, Mr. Farah and hundreds of other engineers are working quickly to deal with the inevitable glitches from new technology.
They must figure out how to keep the batteries cool and adjust the car’s suspension so it performs well while carrying a 400-pound battery pack.
“All those things result in lots of other mechanical parts and bits and pieces that have nothing to do with electrical energy,” Mr. Farah said. “So we’ve had some issues there.”
Simultaneously, other GM workers are testing batteries to make sure they last at least 10 years or 150,000 miles. It would cost more than $10,000 to replace them.
Other workers are making the Volt more functional, giving it the room and feel of a regular car “such that the vehicle is not just a battery on wheels,” Mr. Farah said.
The early concept, a low-riding, sleek silver hatchback, was uncomfortable and not very functional, Mr. Farah said. The new five-door hatchback version more resembles a normal car, a little larger than a Honda Civic.
“It’ll have a similar set of visual cues and some of the features that were on the concept car,” Mr. Farah said.
Late last year, it looked like the Volt’s schedule would be derailed by battery delays. Two competing battery makers - Compact Power Inc. of Troy, Mich., which is working with parent LG Chem of South Korea, and Frankfurt, Germany-based Continental Automotive Systems, which is working with GM and A123 Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass. - fell 10 weeks behind on delivering the power packs.
GM engineers used the time to work on the mechanical connections. Batteries arrived in January at GM’s sprawling Warren, Mich., technical center, and the team has nearly erased the 10-week deficit, Mr. Farah said.
The Volt also is going through the same design issues as a new car powered by a conventional engine, Mr. Farah said.
“The program has all of those same things built in. We’re just doing them faster because we have to,” he said.
Although GM has promised to begin selling the Volt in a little more than two years, experts wonder if it will be ready in time, whether enough batteries will be available to sell the cars in significant numbers, and whether the cost can be reduced to make the car affordable to the masses. GM has said the Volt will cost $30,000 to $40,000, and that it expects to sell 100,000 per year starting in 2012.
While ambitious, that’s still 81,000 fewer than the number of Prius gas-electric hybrids sold by Toyota last year.