Although retail sales of the Chevrolet Volt began last November, General Motors product chief Bob Lutz began lobbying to build a battery-powered electric vehicle in 2005.
But GM executives, who were committed to fuel cell vehicles, shot down Lutz's initial proposals. Painful memories of GM's $1 billion loss on the EV-1 electric car also worked against Lutz.
Then he read of Tesla Motors' Roadster, powered by 6,835 lithium ion laptop batteries.
Using that as a goad, Lutz got GM's still-wary Automotive Strategy Board to let him explore an EV. That, he recounts below, was the genesis of the Volt.
In his new book, Car Guys vs Bean Counters, Lutz tells the inside story of the early days on the Volt project.
An excerpt from Car Guys vs Bean Counters by Bob Lutz. By arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) 2011 by Bob Lutz.
This time, the meeting got me very tentative permission to investigate a lithium-ion EV as a concept. It was, in retrospect, less permission than absence of prohibition. Whatever ... I ran with it. This might be called the germination of the Volt.
Hours after the meeting, I sat in my office with Jon Lauckner, now overseeing all VLEs globally. We schemed about creating the GM "reputational shock therapy" vehicle we had both sought after for so long.
Lauckner listened, not so patiently, to my all-electric dream. When Jon has a thought that simply has to get out, he starts banging his knees together repeatedly. Banging them now, he said, "Look, I know you've got your heart set on an all-electric, but let me show you why that's a bad idea. With lithium-ion, you get, assuming an efficient car, five miles per kilowatt/hour. So, to get a hundred-mile range, you need twenty kilowatt/hours. But since you never want to drain the whole battery because it impacts battery life, we'd want a thirty-kilowatt battery. That's huge. And even if we got the world's best price on a lithium battery, you'd be talking a thousand dollars per kilowatt, or a thirty-thousand dollar battery pack. And you don't even have a car around it. And you'd still only have a hundred-mile range on a good day!" He paused, and then continued: "Now, here's my idea."
With that, on a lined pad and using his expensive, gold-nibbed fountain pen, Jon laid out what was to become the Chevrolet Volt. Pushing that abused pen against the rake of the nib when necessary (resulting in a spray of ink droplets), Jon sketched the chassis. "The sixteen-kilowatt battery goes down the middle and out like a T under the back seat. That's nominally good for eighty miles, but we'll only use eight kilowatts; that'll make the battery last forever. This way, it's good for forty miles, and then we'll cut in this little 1.4-liter engine, which will drive a generator to keep the battery supplied with juice for another, say three hundred miles."
Jon knew the statistic: 80 percent of America's daily trips are forty miles or less; the fuel economy would be infinite. A sixty-mile round trip would require burning gasoline from the tiny engine for twenty miles: the rough calculation for a trip that size would be 150 mpg! The smaller, less expensive battery pack, coupled with the overall range of three hundred miles or more, would make this vehicle ideal: fuel-free for most daily trips, coupled with the ability to go long distances at any time, just like a conventional gasoline-powered car. I was sold. I wish I had Jon's original, ink-spattered drawing. It is truly a piece of automotive history.