Alternative powertrains? GM has been on the case for years
Turbines, hydrogen-burners have been kicking around the lab for decades
But the Volt is far from GM's first attempt at breaking the century-long grip of the internal combustion engine on the auto industry.
As early as the 1930s, GM began researching gas turbine engines for automobiles. It wasn't until the 1950s that GM actually built such an engine, which appeared in a series of concept vehicles called Firebird I, II and III.
The Firebird cars, essentially jet airplanes on wheels, never were intended for production. Firebird I seated one person, and its exhaust reached temperatures of 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit.
That's not to say GM won't revisit turbine engines in the future, says Tom Stephens, GM's group vice president of global powertrain.
"I wouldn't rule anything out. What you need to do is understand, the last time you worked on something, what were the positives and what were the negatives? What did you learn from those limitations in the intervening period, and was that enough that you'd bring them back in and start to use them?" Stephens told Automotive News.
"We do that on a regular basis. We continue to take a look at various things and see if they're more appropriate than they were at the time."
Hope in hydrogen
If the Firebird looked like a spacecraft, GM's next foray into alternative propulsion — fuel cells — truly was rocket science.
In 1966, GM demonstrated the Electrovan, the world's first automobile powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Until then, fuel cells largely had been the domain of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which used them to generate electricity and oxygen for astronauts.
It took a team of about 250 engineers two years to build the Electrovan, which was based on a 1965 GMC Handi-Van. With a 125-hp engine, the Electrovan had a top speed of 70 mph and could go 150 miles before refueling.
Though it never reached the market, the Electrovan influenced and inspired GM's AUTOnomy concept vehicle unveiled in 2002. The AUTOnomy demonstrated the first combination of fuel cell propulsion with drive-by-wire technology to allow steering, brakes and other vehicle systems to be controlled electronically rather than mechanically.
With fuel cell and electronic technology advancing rapidly, GM had aspirations of putting the AUTOnomy into limited production by 2010. But many of the obstacles that kept the Electrovan from the masses 40 years earlier also stood in the way of the AUTOnomy — and other fuel cell vehicles:
-- There still is no infrastructure for hydrogen fuel.
-- The manufacturing technology to mass produce fuel cells doesn't exist.
-- The cost to produce a fuel cell powertrain is still far too high.
-- Questions remain about the reliability and durability of fuel cells.
But GM is getting closer, says Larry Burns, vice president for r&d and strategic planning. As proof, he points to the test fleet of 100 Chevy Equinox fuel cell vehicles that GM delivered to U.S. consumers this year as part of "Project Driveway."
"Anyone who knows anything about technology knows you're not going to go from not having it to everybody having it in one step," Burns told Automotive News.
"With each successive generation, it'll become more cost-competitive. It'll become more durable, and it'll become higher-volume with greater functionality. That cycle feeds on itself, and eventually it tips and becomes the new solution. That's how technology happens."
Resurrecting the electric car
Apart from its work with fuel cells, GM has been dabbling in electric cars for nearly a century.
From 1912 through 1917, GMC produced a line of electric trucks. The early to mid-1960s saw GM build several prototype electric cars from Chevrolet Corvairs. The cars, named the Electrovair I and Electrovair II, were powered by silver-zinc batteries and had a range of 40 to 80 miles. Rising oil prices in the 1970s prompted GM to try again with an electric version of the Chevy Chevette in 1979.
But it wasn't until 1990 that the electric car began to show real promise. That's the year GM introduced its Impact concept car, a zero-emissions two-seater that could go 120 miles on a charge.
GM built a 50-car test fleet of Impacts in 1993 and spent $32 million over the next two years letting 1,000 consumers and several major utility companies drive them. Encouraged by the car's performance, in 1996 GM introduced production versions of the Impact, called the EV1.
Heralded as the first purpose-built, mass-produced electric car in modern times, the EV1 was an instant hit among futurists and environmentalists. GM produced about 1,000 EV1s from 1996 through 1999, leasing them to consumers in California and Arizona through Saturn dealerships.
In a decision that is controversial even today, GM discontinued the EV1 program in late 2003. For all its innovation, the EV1 was impractical: It had two seats and could drive for only about 80 miles before it had to be recharged for four hours. Subsequent generations extended the battery range to almost 140 miles.
According to GM, a waiting list of more than 5,000 names generated only about 50 people willing to follow through on a lease. The automaker already had spent about $1 billion on the EV1, and providing replacement parts and service for a fleet of about 600 vehicles proved too expensive.
Others had a different theory. In the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? it was suggested that GM sabotaged its own marketing efforts out of fear that the EV1 would steal business from its existing gasoline-fueled business. The movie didn't mention that Toyota Motor Corp. killed its own fleet of electric cars, citing reasons similar to GM's.
GM, of course, denies the conspiracy claims. But the EV1 remains a touchy subject with executives.
"Why do people keep saying that we didn't do anything with the EV1?" asks Stephens, the powertrain vice president. "We learned quite a bit, and that's really helped us in a lot of the stuff you're seeing now. We've got more mild (hybrids) out than anybody else does, and we've done it in a very short period of time."
Vice Chairman Bob Lutz agrees. He says the EV1 "solved a lot of the fundamental problems" for GM in such areas as power electronics, regenerative braking, managing battery temperatures, packaging for possible crashes and electric power steering.
"All the guys who worked on it were scattered to the wind, but we got them all back," Lutz said. "And they think their ship has come in."
That "ship" is E-Flex, GM's planned family of electrically driven propulsion systems unveiled in concept form in January 2007. The "Flex" stands for flexibility because the electricity used to power the vehicles can come from several sources: the power grid, a small motor running on ethanol or gasoline, a hydrogen fuel cell or a small diesel engine.
First up for the E-Flex family is the Chevy Volt, which can be configured to run on electricity, gasoline, E85 or biodiesel fuel.
Lutz argues that the Volt is not a plug-in hybrid. "A plug-in carries all the hardware and weight of a standard internal combustion engine, plus the hybrid powertrain components. But it also has a rechargeable battery pack that allows for 10 to 12 miles of pure-electric driving," Lutz says.
"In the Volt, the rechargeable battery has a range of 40 to 50 miles of pure electric driving, and the very small combustion engine is used only to charge the battery if the range is exceeded."
GM has high hopes for the Volt and plans to sell as many as 60,000 in the first full year of production in 2011. But it's not discounting plug-in hybrids, either. A plug-in version of the Saturn Vue Green Line SUV could go into production as early as 2010, perhaps making it the first regular production plug-in hybrid electric vehicle on the market.
It will use a modified version of the Two Mode hybrid system, which debuted in the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. Unlike a mild hybrid, which turns off the gasoline engine when the vehicle is not moving, a Two Mode hybrid can power the vehicle on electric power alone.
GM is in the midst of a huge rollout of hybrid vehicles. By the end of this year it expects to be selling eight hybrid models in the United States. Over the next four years, GM plans to introduce 16 hybrid vehicles.
But hybrids alone won't solve the problem, Burns says. They merely improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, the "dominant DNA" of the auto industry since the 1900s. The future, Burns says, lies not in one but in multiple propulsion technologies.
"Do we want one of them to surface and be the dominant solution going forward? I don't think so. But quite honestly you get to electrically driven vehicles whether they're plugged in with batteries or whether they're hydrogen fuel cells," he said.
"All of those pathways are important. Every one of them could be in play, and you let the market sort that out."