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The Company That Killed the Electric Car Brings It Back

global warming

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Bill Georgevich reporting
Nov 3 2008


General Motors, after having re-introduced the electric car as the E-V1 then sending every one of those cars to the crusher, is now pretending it never happened. Ten years after the death of the E-V1, GM has gone green again, perhaps this time not as begrudgingly. The Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid, is being touted by Chevrolet as not just "gas friendly" but "gas-free", since the first 40 miles can be traveled without the use of any fossil fuel.

Below is a review of the Chevy Volt from Bryan Walsh.

I can see the future of the automobile — I just can't quite hear it. I'm riding around General Motors' secure proving grounds in Milford, Mich., in what from the outside looks like an ordinary Chevrolet Malibu. But inside it couldn't be more different. The test car isn't powered by a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, like nearly every automobile since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line in 1908. Nor is it a hybrid like Toyota's fuel-efficient Prius with a gas engine assisted by an electric motor. This Malibu is electric, powered by a 400-lb. lithium-ion battery nestled beneath the floorboard — an energy source that is not only silent but entirely emission-free.

Actually, what we're driving is not a Malibu at all but a "mule," a stunt double for what will become the Chevrolet Volt, a new plug-in electric car that could save a struggling GM and, not incidentally, change the way we drive — just as long as they can make it work in time. "Developing this car is not something for the lighthearted," says Alex Cattelan, the Volt's assistant chief vehicle engineer, from behind the wheel. "But it's so much fun."

To understand why the Volt could be so important to two once dominant institutions that have hit hard times — General Motors and the United States — all you need to do is visit your nearest gas station, where a gallon of unleaded now costs an average of $3.64. We're spending around $700 billion a year to import oil, with much of that money being shipped to countries that don't like us very much. When we burn all that imported oil, we release nearly 2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, heating up the planet. Those twin trends can't continue, and the solution "is to move away from oil as quickly and as devastatingly as possible," according to former CIA director turned green warrior James Woolsey.

GM is hardly the only major automaker to explore electrics as the way to make that happen; in recent months every major international automaker has announced plans to produce plug-in hybrids, semi-electric cars that can be recharged from a wall socket, like the Volt. But it is GM — which has seen revenues vanish as Americans stampede away from SUVs and other gas gluttons — that is pursuing the most ambitious program. The company does not have a happy history with electrics, having produced the battery-powered EV1 in the 1990s only to discontinue it in 1999. But this time GM has staked its future on the Volt, promising to have it in showrooms by the end of 2010 — far quicker than the pace of development for a standard car, let alone one whose battery does not technically exist yet. "This is not a choice," says Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst for the research firm Global Insight. "This is necessary for their survival." And in a warming world, perhaps ours too.

Under the hood, Bob Lutz is not your typical green. The former Marine pilot — who owns a pair of surplus military jets he likes to fly — probably has a carbon footprint half the size of Michigan. But it is the gravelly Lutz, GM's vice chairman for global product development, who is the driving force behind the Volt. Lutz worked in the auto industry for decades, left to run the battery company Exide Technologies and returned to GM in 2001 full of ideas. His dream was to develop an all-electric car that would be powered by lithium-ion batteries similar to the kind now used in cell phones and laptops. Most current hybrids use nickel-metal-hydride batteries — less expensive, but also less powerful. In 2003 a Silicon Valley start-up named Tesla Motors announced it would produce a $100,000 lithium-ion-powered sports car, and that helped galvanize Lutz. "If some guy in California can do it, to me it shows that this is certifiable technology," he says.

GM as a whole shared that confidence and at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show unveiled an early concept-car version of the Volt. To the surprise of even Lutz, it was the hit of the show. Other hybrids may offer fuel efficiency, but the Volt would go several steps further. A traditional hybrid like the Prius has two means of propulsion: one electric motor run by a battery and one engine run by gasoline. The battery can't take you very far — maybe 7 or 8 miles — which is why the gas engine kicks in so often. But as you drive, the battery does pick up extra juice, mostly courtesy of what's known as regenerative braking — collecting the heat generated every time you hit the brakes, converting it to electricity and storing it in the battery. The result: less gas used on every trip.

The Volt will rely on its electric motor, powered by its new battery, and will go up to 40 miles without using a drop of gas. For the nearly 80% of Americans who drive less than 40 miles a day, that would mean they could effectively eliminate gasoline from their lives. After 40 miles, the Volt's gas engine switches on, but unlike the Prius', it doesn't make the car move an inch. Rather, it generates electricity and feeds it to the battery, much the way an emergency generator in a hospital keeps the lights on during a blackout. This allows you to go an additional several hundred miles before you need either a fill-up or a charge-up. "With [past electrics] people had to change the way they lived," says Andrew Farah, the Volt's chief engineer. "I want a vehicle that doesn't ask them to change at all."

 
 


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