There are good reasons why the Volt was 2011 North American Car of the Year and has earned numerous other awards. An arguably attractive 5-door, 4-seat hatchback with appeal to environmental and technology enthusiasts alike, it runs on exhaust-free grid power for 30-40 miles, then seamlessly switches to gasoline when more miles are needed.
But to do that, it needs to tote around both a gas engine and an electric propulsion system, including a 435-lb lithium-ion battery pack, plus a multi-clutch planetary gearset and 10 million lines of sophisticated software to efficiently and transparently marry the two. That makes it both heavy and pricey for its size, with a $39,995 base sticker price for 2012.
When I saw Mickey Bly, GM's executive director, Electrical Systems, Hybrids, Electric Vehicles and Batteries, and Volt chief engineer Andrew Farah at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, I asked where GM might be headed with "Voltec" propulsion beyond this first-generation Volt. "We have to look at every incremental opportunity for efficiency," Bly responded. "We'll continue to use the Volt as a platform for technology development."
"Among other things, we need serious cost reduction."
"We're already looking at other portfolio opportunities," Farah added. "We're also looking into what Gen II might be. Among other things, we need serious cost reduction." Cost, efficiency, continued development and other "portfolio opportunities" – predictable responses.
So I called independent expert Jon Bereisa, a former career GM technology leader who worked on everything electric from EV1 through fuel-cell EVs and two-mode hybrids to Voltec. Before bolting in 2009 to found Auto Lectrification LLC, where he is president and CEO, Bereisa was GM's director of Advanced Engineering & Technology Strategy.
"I left the auto industry and went upstream to the supplier industry," he said. "You might say I'm pushing vehicle electrification technology into the OEM environment.
"Let's look at the Volt propulsion system architecture in two dimensions: In the X dimension, it has a lot of band width. It can cover a large variety of vehicles." Bereisa defines "architecture" as a system that can be scaled up or down and within which any one component or subsystem can be changed to a different technology without tearing up the rest.
"You can run the motor as a motor and the generator also as a motor," he continues, "and pick the time and conditions under which the generator becomes a motor, so you can cover a lot of vehicle masses and sizes. For energy, the battery – the Volt has three cells in parallel, and of those threes, 96 in series [total 288] – could have two in parallel for smaller vehicles, or four or five in parallel for larger vehicles – leaving the series string alone, which determines your voltage – and still have 30-40 miles of range."
His Y dimension is the propulsion system itself: "You can take it to Brazil, up its compression and have a pure alcohol E100 engine. The rest of the vehicle stays the same. Europeans are in love with biodiesel, so you can use a small direct-injected diesel running on biodiesel fuel. [Eventually] you can take out the engine, generator and battery pack and put a hydrogen fuel cell in front and two hydrogen tanks in back, while the rest stays the same."
"E85 applied to the Voltec architecture would do a phenomenal job of reducing the amount of petroleum being burned."
Bereisa offers a near-term idea on which he believes GM should be working: making the engine E85 capable. "Today, the average Volt drive is a little over 1,000 miles before refueling. And when the owners refuel, they add back about eight gallons, so that computes to approximately 125 mpg. But with E85, only 15 percent of that gallon of fuel is petroleum-based gasoline, so on a gasoline-usage basis, that's 125 mpg times roughly six, or about 750 mpg... a HUGE improvement! E85 applied to the Voltec architecture would do a phenomenal job of reducing the amount of petroleum being burned."
GM says there are no current plans to make the Volt engine E85 capable, however. That would add cost, and the availability of E85 fuel is still slim in most areas. Perhaps they'll rethink that down the road.
He believes there are cost-reduction opportunities in the Gen I Volt even before Gen II: "The mission was to build the car as fast as we could, which meant using existing parts as much as possible. When you use available components, you're probably carrying a little more cost and mass than you need, since every component had to do something else, probably in a larger vehicle. So I think literally thousands of dollars can come out of that car, and by the time they get to Gen II, it'll be a very cost-effective proposition."
"Literally thousands of dollars can come out of that car."
Including the battery? "About 70 percent of that is cell cost. I think we'll see that down to maybe $200 per kWh in two to three years, even without major innovations. And I foresee at least twice the energy density in five to seven years."
The range-extender engine? "When we modeled the Volt's engine, theoretically we could have gotten to high 40s or low 50s mpg in gasoline mode. But we would have had to run it continuously at 3500-3800 rpm and just switch it on and off, and the noise and pleasability wouldn't work. We had to drop it down, which got us to 37-38 mpg. But I think a lot of fuel economy still can be gained without major expenditures in tooling or engineering."
He also sees opportunity to reduce the vehicle's mass: "The Volt came in at 1,600-plus kilos. My target was 1,500, with the battery. We borrowed components from other places, and it adds up. So a lot can be done just in lightening, which will increase gasoline fuel economy as well as electric range."
Now for that still-cloudy crystal ball: I foresee that Volt, like conventional cars, should get a facelift with aero improvements and a technology upgrade in three to four years and probably a complete makeover by 2017. And it will benefit from incremental improvements year to year to reduce cost and weight and improve efficiency.
The result will be a slightly smaller, much lighter, more fuel efficient and more affordable Volt.
I'm not as bullish as Bereisa on the rates of improvements in battery cost and energy density but can foresee a significant battery cost reduction by that 2014 facelift and another, along with energy-density improvement, by that 2017 Gen II. The result will be a slightly smaller, much lighter, more fuel efficient and more affordable Volt that can run 35-50 miles on battery power, achieve mid-40s-mpg gasoline economy and sell in the low- to mid-$30Ks.
I also foresee evolving Voltec technology proliferating to other GM vehicles, including larger cars, crossovers, even trucks. And other makers offering EREVs, beginning with Fisker.
Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.