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By Robert Rapier on Jan 8, 2007 with no responses

GM Revives the Electric Car

Years after GM killed the electric car, they are bringing it back. They introduced a new electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this weekend. Here is what the car looks like:

GM’s New Chevrolet Volt

The only problem is that they still haven’t invented the battery that will run it. This is expected to come in 2010 or 2012. Forbes recently wrote an article on the car. Some excerpts, explaining why this is an improvement over GM’s earlier efforts:

The Chevy Volt is driven by electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries that are charged by plugging the vehicle into a standard 110-volt socket. But the vehicle has a small gasoline-powered generator on board that can charge the battery on the fly when it gets low. GM calls the generator a “range extender” in an effort to eliminate the biggest drawback to the automaker’s early efforts at electric vehicles–a range of 80 miles or so.

On comparisons to PHEVs (my favorite site on PHEVs is here):

Though the Volt concept is similar to what is known as a plug-in hybrid, an extremely fuel-efficient powertrain being pushed for by environmental groups, it differs in some important respects. A plug-in hybrid, like a traditional hybrid-electric vehicle, has a gasoline motor and electric motor working in tandem to power the vehicle. A plug-in hybrid, however, has a larger battery that can drive the vehicle for longer stretches of time and can be charged by plugging into an electrical outlet.

The Chevy Volt, however, is never powered by mechanical energy–it has no transmission. It is always powered by electricity. The on-board motor is a tiny, 3-cylinder generator that supplies electricity when the battery runs low.

And, addressing the fact that GM dropped the ball on this long ago:

Meanwhile, Toyota, Honda and Ford have sold hundreds of thousands of hybrid electric vehicles collectively, and GM has sold just a handful. It seems hard to imagine now, but General Motors not long ago produced the most environmentally friendly automobile in the world: the electric vehicle called EV-1. Not Toyota, not Honda–General Motors.

What especially burns people inside GM: It had some elements of hybrid technology on the road before any other company. GM’s EV-1 was powered by sophisticated electric motors, and its nickel-metal hydride battery was recharged through regenerative braking. The battery in Toyota’s now-iconic Prius is nickel-metal hydride, it is charged with regenerative braking and it powers electric motors.

GM swears it has learned its lesson. The Chevy Volt, or a vehicle like it, could vault the company back to the front of the technology pack. If, of course, GM can figure out a way to build the thing.

As a fan of transportation electrification, this is a promising development. Of course some caution is warranted, since “the batteries aren’t invented yet”, but it is good to see GM getting back into this arena. Even though you can buy a PHEV in some other countries, PHEVs are presently only available in the U.S. by modifying existing hybrid vehicles (details here). And I firmly believe that in the coming years, the world is going to have to move toward electrification, because liquid fossil fuels will become more scarce/expensive, and biofuels can’t scale up enough to replace our current motor fuel consumption.