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Out of the Volt

Ecstatic: GM product czar Bob Lutz presents the Volt concept in Detroit.

GM intends to offer affordable electric vehicles - by the end of this decade

Chevrolet logo20 Sep 2007


GENERAL Motors is working on a plan to introduce affordable electric vehicles from as early as 2010.

The world’s biggest car-maker, which rolled out two electric-powered concept cars at last week’s Frankfurt motor show, acknowledges that the cost of batteries is still the main sticking point.

GM Asia Pacific president Nick Reilly told GoAuto earlier this month that even if batteries were produced at a large scale, they would still add $6000 to $7000 to the price of each car.

Rather than simply continue to delay the introduction of an electric vehicle until the production costs were significantly reduced, Mr Reilly said GM was examining ways to make the extra cost of the vehicle acceptable to consumers. The plan involves the customer leasing the vehicle’s batteries separately to the car.

Mr Reilly said that although electric vehicles such as GM’s Chevrolet Volt concept car – which have a small petrol generator on board but largely recharge their own battery pack – would cost more to buy, they would cost very little to run.

“The fuel economy is enormous. It can run for 40 or 50 miles with zero fuel, just on an electric charge,” Mr Reilly said, adding that a leasing plan would mean the consumer would not be out of pocket by much, if at all.

“The cost of the leasing of the battery will be the same as or less than the cost they are paying for fuel,” he said. “So the motoring cost for an electric vehicle doesn’t necessarily have to be much higher than the motoring cost of today’s car.

 center imageFrom the top: Opel Flextreme and Chevrolet Volt concept.

“It sounds pretty obvious when you talk about it, but it hasn’t been thought of before. Before we were saying that it would be an awful long time before we could get the cost down so people can afford it, but actually if you offset the fuel costs, people can afford it.” Asked if such a plan would be hard to sell to consumers who might not be convinced by the economics, Mr Reilly responded that it should not be too difficult.

“People lease cars, so why wouldn’t they lease a battery?” he said.

GM presented its latest fuel-cell prototype called the HydroGen4 at the Frankfurt motor show last week. The company is still examining fuel-cell technology, but appears more interested in electric models using lithium-ion batteries that are recharged by small onboard generators.

Built under the GM E-Flex umbrella, the Volt was the first of these cars. It was also at Frankfurt, but made its world debut earlier this year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It uses a 1.0-litre petrol engine to recharge the batteries, but also enables additional battery charging via the electricity grid.

As reported last week, GM also used Frankfurt to show the Opel Flextreme concept car, which uses the same basic technology as the Volt with the exception that the onboard generator is a 1.3-litre turbo-diesel engine rather than a small petrol unit.

“We are the industry leader in this technology, and we are making very good progress in our effort to bring it to market,” said GM CEO Rick Wagoner last week. “Given the huge potential that E-Flex offers to reduce oil consumption, reduce oil imports, and reduce carbon emissions, this is for sure a top priority program for GM.” Mr Reilly said GM also had an interest in petrol-electric hybrid technology, which it offered in selected US models, but added that cost issues were holding back the technology.

“The market for hybrids is unknown. It depends a little bit on whether or not there are deliberate (government) incentives. Obviously they are quite a bit more expensive at this time,” he said. “Also, typically we have to wait until there is a generation change in the car before we will bring in a hybrid in that vehicle.” Mr Reilly said further development of regular petrol engines was also a priority at GM. “We have been working on some fairly significant improvements to our powertrains, which have started to come in already and will come in within the next two to three years. More and more displacement-on-demand and these sorts of things,” he said.

“We are upgrading our existing engines to the next generation and they are either coming in, or will be coming in within the next two or three years, and generally those type of upgrades give a four to five per cent improvement in fuel economy.”

Read more:

First look: Volt takes over where EV1 left off

First look: Opel Flextreme breaks new ground

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