GM: Chevy Volt battery tech on track

Engineering of battery system for General Motors' Chevy Volt is progressing, with the auto giant arguing that battery technology is now strategic to its long-term plans.

General Motors plans to build prototypes of its Chevy Volt electric car this summer based on successful development of its battery powertrain technology to this point.

Despite GM's grave financial problems, the Chevy Volt is still scheduled for release in November 2010, company executives said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. The four-door sedan can go 40 miles on a full charge and has an internal combustion engine to charge the battery for longer trips.

During the call, executives said GM engineers have been able to meet its battery performance goals and that the company is already working on second- and third-generation battery systems.

Inside the Chevy Volt's battery pack. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

GM expects to reuse different elements of the T-shaped battery pack in the Chevy Volt in other vehicles. For cars that are about the same size as the Volt, a very similar battery pack can be used. Other vehicles can borrow the thermal management and power electronics that GM is developing for the battery pack.

GM in January announced that it intends to do auto battery engineering itself , rather than rely exclusively on partners, because it is strategic to its long-term plans. The company applied for and received a Michigan state grant to build a manufacturing facility, said Bob Kruse, GM's executive director of global hybrid, electric-vehicle, and battery engineering.

The battery cells themselves will be supplied by Korean company LG Chem. At a Michigan facility, GM worked with an industrial-design partner on the battery pack, which holds more than 200 cells, and the associated control systems. That battery design plant will be officially opened later this year, Kruse said.

A look at how the T-shaped battery pack affects the interior of the Volt. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

The T-shape battery pack, able to hold 16 kilowatt-hours of electricity, fits under the car and can be assembled in a way similar to gasoline cars, Kruse said.

The shape of the battery, where a "battery tunnel" runs down the middle of the car, means that the Chevy Volt will be a four-passenger car because there is only space for two seats in the back.

Costs remains a significant challenge for GM's Volt program and for all electric vehicles aimed at the mass market. GM executives have said they expect to lose money on the first version of the Volt--expected to be priced around $40,000--which makes federal and state tax credits for electric-car purchases very important.

"The first-generation technology is expensive. That's why some of the incentives at the state and federal (level) help with vehicle electrification," Kruse said. "I think it makes a fairly viable business proposition for first-generation technology."

Its second- and third-generation battery programs are focused primarily on bringing down the cost, GM executives said. Engineers are looking to take advantage of the latest battery technologies and find efficiencies in manufacturing, such as using fewer parts.

Automakers have played with the idea of owning the actual auto batteries, which would allow consumers to get new and presumably better batteries after a few years. Kruse said GM still has not decided on its "go to market strategy," with regard to batteries.

Batteries could be used for other applications, after they have run their useful life in cars, said Andrew Farah, the chief engineer of the Chevrolet Volt. For example, they could be used for backup power. Utilities, too, are exploring lithium ion batteries for storage.

The lithium within the batteries could also be recycled and reused, Kruse noted. With so many automakers choosing lithium ion batteries, there are growing questions over the available supply of lithium , much of which comes from China and Chile.

Even though the price of gasoline has fallen to below $2 a gallon in many places in the United States, Kruse said GM continues to add resources to the Volt program because electric powertrains are the future of the industry. The price of gasoline when GM releases the Volt will play into how the company fixes its price, he added.

"I will tell you that a $1.50 (gallon of) gasoline is not necessarily helping with the business case (for the Volt), but who knows what the cost of petroleum will be in the future?" he said.

 

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