OnStar EV Lab - Click above for high-res image gallery
One of the features that GM is promoting with the Chevy Volt, due late next year, is a completely new level of connectivity for the plug-in hybrid. Well, completely new isn't quite right. The Volt will certainly communicate with the grid and with GM in new ways, but the underlying OnStar technology that will make all of this possible isn't new at all. It's a decade old, and the updates to the ninth-generation OnStar system that will be in the Volt would not be possible without years of testing and development. The system is also helping GM test the Volt and it came in handy during the recent eight-Volt, multi-state test drive. Read on after the jump to find out how OnStar xo's the Volt.
OnStar has been used in the past to improve fuel economy (as have competing systems), but the way that the Volt will use OnStar goes well beyond checking tire pressure. For one thing, GM is working with the EDTA to collect data from utilities across the U.S. about pricing and off-peak charging availability. This takes a tremendous amount of time, but will make the system have real value to Volt customers, once the nationwide roll-out begins (likely sometime in 2011). The car will be able to integrate with utilities across the country, but exactly how will be determined over the next year. The Volt and OnStar will also be exported to China at some point, but GM didn't say how they are integrating with the state utilities there.
OnStar in the Volt
The Volt in the lab had a grand total of eight miles on the odometer. Even brand new, this Volt wasn't all dolled up (note the black duct tape on the rear) because GM is getting ready to send some of these vehicles on a date with a crash test wall. Nonetheless, inside the car everything was where it needed to be.
The IVER Volts have the production-intent OnStar technology in them, and the OnStar EV team is accessing information from about 25 percent of the Volts on the road. Currently, the lab is pulling data from 19 Volts; it was 17 last week. Each of the 19 Volt's in the current test has 20 modules that can send data points to the OnStar center. Before the first production Volts hit the market late next year, GM expects to have collected about a million data points (in the first 59 days of the test, they have gotten just under 80,000). In those production vehicles, OnStar will be a prominent selling point. So much so that OnStar features will likely be introduced in the Volt and then rolled out in other GM vehicles.
How does it help GM? How might it help Volt drivers?
Tony Posawatz compared the constant OnStar diagnostics to a person going to see a doctor. Instead of the nurse checking heart rate, blood pressure and temperature before the doctor arrives, these numbers would be available to the doctor all the time. For the Volt testing, the important information is being fed to the engineers all the time. Currently, the OnStar testing is, as might be expected, quite focused on the health of the battery and keeps an eye on things like the state of charge, temperature, and the cooling system. Currently, the OnStar network does have the ability to "reach out and touch the vehicle," but GM is being tight-lipped about how, exactly this might be used in the Volt to offer firmware upgrades or other options.
Aside from the way the battery is working, GM is trying to understand where people might want on-the-go charging units to be placed (work? shopping areas? etc.) but believes that the number one charging station will be the home. To see if this is appropriate, GM pulled real data from thousands of OnStar-equipped vehicles over the last week, and calculated what would have happened had they all been Volts. These vehicles were a representative sample, which in this case means the random drivers were selected from areas where GM expects initial interest in the Volt will be high. GM has previously said that it has its eye on "early adopter" cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to sell the Volt at first, so the sample might have included drivers from these areas. The charts show how drivers use their cars. In these charts with blue and green data sets, the green represents miles that could be driven in all-electric mode, the blue is when the range extender would come on. In this chart, the dark green is the extra EV miles that could be driven with a bit of opportunity charging during the day. The take away point is that GM found that 90 percent of the customers would drive 90 percent of the time using only the battery.
Like with other plug-in vehicles, Volt drivers will be able to set when they want their vehicle to charge and interact with the smart grid. Low-cost nighttime charging will be the cheapest way to fill up the battery pack but there will be ways to tell the car to make sure the charge is completed by a particular time no matter what the energy costs.
GM's attitude about pure EVs
At the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica recently, GM said that it might be possible that they'll sell customers Volt bodies with the battery pack but without the range extender. Posawatz was very cool to this idea when we followed up with him, but did say that the future is wide open and that the Volt team is investigating all sorts of ways to best charge the battery with the range extender (sterling engine, using a smaller ICE, etc.).
In the OnStar EV Lab, GM was very, very disparaging of the 100-mile range of some upcoming pure electric vehicles. According to its test data, GM believes that 30 percent of drivers need to go more than that in a day and so would be stranded with a 100-mile range. Another 20 percent are afraid of running out of energy and would let their range anxiety dissuade them from getting an electric car with that range. So, GM says, half of the people won't be served by a car like the Leaf. Of course, this means that half of all drivers would be fine with a Leaf on a day-to-day basis.