Detroit Auto Show: AutoblogGreen Q&A with Dave Barthmuss on the Chevy Volt

AutoblogGreen sat down for a chat with Dave Barthmuss of General Motors after the Chevy Volt reveal yesterday (Sunday) to answer some questions about GM's alternative fuel strategy and even the EV1. Dave is the Manager of Public Policy, Environment and Energy Communications (North America) and if you've seen the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" you might remember Dave.
ABG: Dave, what is your role at GM?.

DB: Well I manage public policy, environment and energy issues at GM North America. So if it runs on gasoline and only gasoline I've got nothing to do with it.

ABG: So you focus on the alternative fuel vehicles?.

DB: Biofuels, hybrids, fuel cells, now the Chevy E-Flex system. Also, vehicle mandates.

ABG: From your perspective what's the driving force behind creating a vehicle like the Volt?

DB: It is a business necessity. We cannot rely 98 percent on any one single source of energy for our vehicles. Ninety-eight percent reliance on oil is not a good thing. You know geopolitical issues, calamities that could happen in the Gulf of Mexico, emergency security, what's going on in the Middle East has alerted us that if we want to supply the 88 percent of the world that does not have access to a car or truck for transportation, you need to do it in a way other than the way we're doing it right now. So we basically focus on two pathways to solve or to meet environment and energy issues, and make sure our business is healthy, moving forward long term. Those involve biofuels whether it's E85 ethanol or biodiesel or electricity. And electricity has many forms. It has hybrid vehicle technology, fuel cell vehicle technology and now what you'll learn about today on the E-Flex that's the ultimate when it comes to electrical architecture.

The interview is continued after the jump.
ABG: Our stories on the Volt and E-Flex went live overnight and we've already had quite a few comments on it. And there's always, the question that comes up with a vehicle like this because there isn't a committed date for production. How serious is GM about building a vehicle like this? Obviously you know there are certainly elements of the Volt that may not be practical from the production standpoint. What kind of timeline are we looking at?

DB: Well I know somebody asked Bob Lutz, What's the timeline? and he said by the end of a decade. I don't know what decade that is. But this is an aggressive product program that is moving forward. We have our chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner up there talking about the virtues of E-Flex. He doesn't say that kind of stuff if he's not serious about having the company committed to doing it. I think because it is a business necessity for us to move forward, to go into electrified vehicle technology. We have to do this. I mean it, it's our future that's at stake to make this kind of architecture work. Yeah there are some issues when it comes to battery technology but none of them we believe are insurmountable. And we've been talking to a lot of different battery suppliers and potential battery partners. We announced two partnerships last week with Johnson Controls and Cobasys [ see related story here]. And we are talking to more that may be more pertinent to the E-Flex system. So I, we have every confidence in the world that this program is going to move forward and become a reality. And as soon as that battery technology is there, the vehicle is going to be there to meet it. The question is how quickly can that battery technology occur. People are saying it can happen between 2010 and 2012. If that happens, we'd love it to happen and the vehicle would be there. But you know there's a lot of unknowns in the battery world that we just don't control. We know that lead acid and nickel metal hydride aren't going to work inside a vehicle. So it's got to be lithium ion.

ABG: Okay. Now we have a company like Tesla Motors that's building a roadster and they've announced plans to move forward with lower-cost, higher-volume vehicles by the end of the decade. Is there any possibility that GM might move forward similar to what they did with EV1 and build some low volumes to get some in the field?

DB: I'm sure. Whenever you have an advanced technology like this you don't come out of the block making 48,000-50,000 a year your first run. So like we're doing with our Chevrolet Equinox, the fuel cell vehicle, we're building 100. We're going to put it in the hands of individual customers and businesses and government agencies to get the data that we need back on how is this vehicle used, How do they like the feeling? We're going to get the same information from those consumers that we got from those that drove EV1 early on and the impact of them. And that is the GM preview drive. And that's Project Driveaway with Equinox which is going to help us ultimately commercialize fuel cell vehicles. And I am assuming that initially a vehicle like the Chevy Volt will have to come out in relatively small numbers until we can get that volume up the ramp and going and building a customer base.

ABG: Well, Tesla is planning to start their production this year with their first 100 vehicles. Now is there any reason why GM couldn't move forward say in 2008 and build 100 vehicles and put them in the hands of customers?

DB: We certainly applaud what Tesla's doing. We think it's a great break-the-mold kind of company and approach. And we've talked to those folks, our engineers have had a lot of discussions. But their approach to the battery situation is completely different than ours. They have a lot of batteries soldered together, a lot of different cells. That's just not the approach that we want to take with this because we have to have a vehicle that's very affordable because it's a Chevrolet brand, Chevrolet badge that can seat many people, that can seat five or six people not two like we had with our EV1. If the battery technology comes forward earlier on that'd be great for us and we'd like to see that happen. But right now we haven't even announced to our partners yet.

ABG: Is GM looking at AltairNano as one of the companies that you're looking at for batteries?

DB: All I can say is that I know that we're looking at a lot of them. That's not a name I'm familiar with.

ABG: They're using some nanotechnology in the electrodes in the batteries. They're working with Phoenix Motor Cars on the Phoenix SUT truck. It's been announced earlier this year or the middle of last year.

DB: I don't know if we are or not but I can find out for you.

ABG: Just a few more technical questions. What's the rationale for the use of two plugs, one on each side of the vehicle? Is that just to make it more convenient for people in the matter of you know where they park?

DB: No matter where they park it's easy for them to plug it in.

ABG: Would the plan be to include a cord in a vehicle so people could plug it in anywhere? And what about the body materials on the vehicle? Because I noticed that the vehicle, given you know the battery and everything it seems to be relatively low weight for its size, 3,100 pounds approximately.

DB: A lot of plastic composites were done. I think General Electric played a big role in that. Certainly composites like that have are being used to lower the weight because the lighter the vehicle the farther it can go.

ABG: Of course that raises the cost of the vehicle too.

DB: Well maybe not. I don't know if it raises the cost maybe not. I think that we have a lot of lightweight vehicles that we're selling today that aren't necessarily making them be cost prohibitive. I think that plastics and lightweight materials have advanced to the point where they may not be as out of the picture when you look at it. So I don't think that we would've picked parts that would've made it so expensive for the cost to manufacture it. We learned our lesson with the EV1. You have to have a vehicle that is affordable, that we can build affordable to scale to manufacture and that will appeal to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.

ABG: Now I personally love this design and I think it's a really cool looking car and have some exciting engineering there. But given what happened, with the history of the EV1 there's going to be a lot of skeptics out there who think "Oh no, another concept vehicle, they're never going to build this thing!" Now, how would you respond to those people? The people who went out and watched Who Killed the Electric Car.

DB: Well, all I can tell them is we built a great electric car when we built the EV1. We built it and it was a great car. We have our chairman and CEO saying that we are committed to building the Chevy Volt and the E-Flex system. It's necessary for our long-term future in this business. The issues facing us in 2007 are vastly different than we faced in the mid '90s when the EV1 was available. There are many other reasons that we came to our decision to end production and marketing of the EV1 that we are cognizant of so that as we build the Chevy Volt and E-Flex system, that we address those, that we have the vehicle that will appeal to more than 800 people, that may have a range. You may never ever, ever have to fill up this vehicle on gasoline. Because the internal combustion engine is basically a generator that charges the batteries. You may never have to do anything but plug this baby in to your wall. You can seat more than two people. It's got a nice trunk area where you can fit a lot of your soccer equipment and this will not force you to make as many tradeoffs in your transportation lifestyle that a small number of very enthusiastic, and passionate and loyal people were willing to do with the EV1 but a mass market never evolved. So those that are questioning our commitment to build this just realize that we've done this before, we've done this in the past. We've learned from that program and we intend to put it into this program so that it can be a long-term vital option for us.

ABG: I think a big part of the skepticism comes from the fact that when the EV1 program ended, you took those cars, you didn't let the people keep the cars or buy the cars outright. I think that's a big reason behind that.

DB: There was a reason that we did not allow those vehicles that came off lease expiration not to be purchased. We did not have the parts that we could keep those vehicles serviced and maintained in a safe manner. We were not building a gasoline version of the EV1 where we were continuing to make parts. There were 2,000 unique parts on the EV1. One of them controlled the brakes. If that part failed, it was a serious danger to the driver and to those around them. Our parts suppliers left GM because we couldn't order parts from them and have enough volume to make it vital for them to move forward with us. So we had to cannibalize parts from other EV1s to keep those other cars going. We may not have this problem with the Chevy Volt and the E-Flex because we'll be building an entire volume. We couldn't allow a person to keep a vehicle that we didn't have the confidence would be safe. It was a huge safety issue. So that's why as the vehicles came off lease we put them in museums, we gave them to colleges and we sent them to our engineers in New York for cold weather testing and, yeah, we crushed and recycled the rest of them.

ABG: I know some of them did go to universities, such as the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

DB: That's one and there's one at the Smithsonian, there's one in the Peterson Automotive Museum. There's also one in the Henry Ford Museum. Many universities across the country got them. So we still have some that are being used to test lithium-ion batteries that are in the hands of our engineers.

ABG: Thank you very much for your time, Dave.

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