Even as it faces a massive corporate restructuring, General Motors this summer will begin testing prototypes of the electric Chevrolet Volt, a that could be pivotal to its future.
GM on Thursday hosted a teleconference to discuss its community outreach efforts and work with electric utilities to establish an industry "ecosystem" to make electric vehicles attractive to buyers.
The Volt is scheduled for mass production starting in November 2010 in the U.S. and introduction in mid-2011 in Canada. About 80 prototypes will be built for fleet testing this summer, said vehicle line director for the Chevy VoltTony Posawatz, who revealed a few more details about the highly anticipated sedan.
Getting millions of plug-in vehicles on the road in the coming years will require new technologies and the installation of a car-charging infrastructure in communities, say automakers. One technology important to widespread plug-in use is so-called smart charging, where car batteries are charged at off-peak times in the middle of the night.
With the release of the 2011 Volt late next year, General Motors will allow consumers to set what time the car can be charged using GM's OnStar in-car communication system.
"We will have a customer-selectable car-charging feature at a minimum," Posawatz said. "We don't have to put in smart meters to get those kinds of features and accommodations."
By controlling when and how fast a car's battery is charged, a utility can smooth out the demand on the power grid and avoid having to install more power plants to meet peak demand. In places where there is time-of-day electricity pricing, consumers could potentially get cheaper off-peak rates.
A Volt, which has a 16 kilowatt-hour battery, will consume about 2,500 kilowatt-hours a year, according to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The average U.S. home consumes about 11,000 kilowatt-hours a year.
Smart charging, which would work with a utility's smart grid programs for running the grid efficiently, will become more important as millions of plug-in vehicles get attached to the grid, said Mark Duvall, director electric transportation at EPRI. The first generation of mainstream electric cars coming out next year won't require it, he said.
Another important step to making electric cars more palatable to consumers is having dedicated outlets that can charge at 240 volts, twice as fast as a normal outlet.
The city of San Francisco is trying to coordinate among different agencies to establish a plug-in charging infrastructure, including streamlined permitting for dedicated car charging lines, said Robert Hayden, clean transportation adviser for the city's Department of the Environment.
Making charging pedestals available in public places for people who live in apartment buildings, for example, is also important to plug-in car adoption, but very expensive and complicated, he said.
Because of GM's precarious financial position, there's a lot riding on the commercial success of the Chevy Volt and the underlying electric power train which GM plans to use in different cars.
But in its review of automakers receiving federal aid, the Obama administration's auto industry task force found the Volt technology promising but too expensive to be commercial viable.
GM executives have said they expect to lose money on the first generation of Volts. Posawatz said on Thursday that GM could shed thousands of dollars per car through high-volume domestic manufacturing of components, such as batteries and chargers, and technology improvements.
"It certainly may not be a Moore's Law relationship, but I do believe that we have just begun the journey of taking down the cost of batteries and the vehicle," he said, adding that GM is already working on a second-generation Volt focused on lower costs.
Posawatz offered a few more technical details on the 2011 Volt, which will have an internal combustion engine that can run both gasoline and E85, a blend of gas and ethanol. The engine acts as a generator for the battery for rides beyond 40 miles.
The batteries themselves will have a thermal management system that includes liquid cooling and the ability to start in very cold temperatures even when it's not plugged in, he said.
The anticipated battery life will be 10 years and 150,000 miles. After their use in moving cars, GM anticipates that utilities could use the batteries--still at 75 percent capacity--for grid storage and they would eventually be recycled.