GM Settles on Volt’s Battery Maker

By dancurranjr On August 29th, 2008

General Motors Corp. has decided on a battery maker for the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric vehicle, but it’s not saying who it is, yet, Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said Thursday on the sidelines of a media event touting the automaker’s 2009 vehicle line.

Lutz said GM plans to announce the battery supplier by the end of the year and will show the production version of the much-anticipated electric-drive vehicle “fairly soon.”

GM is hoping to regain a solid reputation for technological leadership and return to profitability with the Volt and a growing lineup of more fuel efficient and alternative energy vehicles, some of which it showed to automotive journalists Thursday in Joliet, Ill.

The Volt, which is expected to drive 40 miles on an electric charge alone and about 400 miles using an onboard gas-burning generator to recharge its lithium-ion battery, is not expected to be available publicly until November 2010. But it is already the symbol GM is using to promote an image of fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness.

“The actual production of production vehicles may be earlier,” Lutz said.

Because the battery technology necessary to make the vehicle possible is yet unproven, GM has been working closely with two battery makers — Continental and LG Chem — to develop the power supply for the Volt.

Lutz said Thursday that the automaker expects to have a large number of production Volts operating in a test fleet by the end of 2009.

“The Volt is real … and test work is progressing nicely,” Lutz said. “We haven’t hit any obstacles so far for the batteries. They are all performing flawlessly. It’s almost scary we are not seeing any problems with the batteries.”

The Volt is just one part of an energy diversification strategy at GM that includes efforts to develop more fuel-efficient internal combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cells, clean diesel and small turbocharged engines.

But it’s an important part, said auto analyst Erich Merkle of Crowe Chizek.

“The Volt is a big game-changer,” Merkle said. “It’s not going to save GM, but it’s a green halo vehicle. It has the potential to change the perception of GM to be one of a fuel-efficient automaker.”

GM is already doing a lot of things to improve the fuel efficiency of its lineup, Merkle said, but often has difficulty getting credit for what it does accomplish.

GM is already using many of the technological measures other automakers are now boasting about, Lutz said.

For example, GM has already begun combining turbocharging and direct injection in engines, he said.

Ford calls its combination of gasoline-injection with turbocharging EcoBoost and says it provides up to a 20% improvement in fuel economy.

It will be available on a few vehicles in 2009, such as the Lincoln MKS and Ford Flex crossover. Four-cylinder EcoBoost engines are to debut in 2010 in North America and Europe.

But Lutz said GM is already doing that.

“We build EcoBoost turbos today,” Lutz said. “This technology is not new. We don’t call it EcoBoost. We’re doing a lot of it and we know how to do it. The only thing we don’t understand is how Ford claims to get 20% better fuel economy. … When we look at absolutely equivalent engines, we see about an 8% improvement.”

Lutz said he believes Ford must also be including other vehicle improvements such as low-friction tires and electric steering.

Lutz also explained why the Volt should not be called a hybrid — even a plug-in one.

“I know you’ve been hearing a lot about it lately, but it bears repeating that the Volt is not a plug-in hybrid, even though you can plug it in,” Lutz said. “It’s not a hybrid, which is a vehicle that is usually powered by an internal combustion engine with vehicle assist. It is an extended-range electric vehicle. The power driving the wheels is electricity, and only electricity.”

Toyota Motor Corp. has said it will launch a fleet of plug-in hybrids in 2010, but Toyota’s plug-in system — like its existing Prius hybrid — has both the electric motor and gas engine powering the wheels.

GM does plan to launch a plug-in hybrid, Lutz said. The Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid is to make it to market in 2011.

Lutz said all of the solutions GM is pursuing — as well as many that others are pursuing — are viable and in many cases, complementary.

“We are exploring all of them, because ultimately, it may take more than one of them to transform the industry,” Lutz said. “They’re not competing alternatives.”

Lutz said he could not predict when GM will return to profitability after reporting some of its worst quarterly losses ever in recent years. He said GM hopes its upcoming vehicles combined with a plan to save and raise $15 billion this year and next could lead to a return to profitability as early as 2010.

“I cannot in all good conscience make any projections of when” GM will return to profitability, Lutz said. CEO Rick Wagoner and President Fritz Henderson “have said if everything goes according to plan and we have some sort of recovery in 2010, we would hope to have the corporation profitable again by then.”


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