General Moors (GM), the all-American automaker that founded its enviable reputation on gargantuan sports utility vehicles and fuel-guzzling street blazers, has now decided to go green. Yesterday, it announced ambitious plans to bring the concept electric hybrid car Chevrolet Volt to the consumer by 2010, even as it cut down on production of its usual repertoire of trucks and SUVs.
This change of heart is not entirely unexpected, considering the galloping prices of crude and similar plans announced by other auto giants. While Ford has also decided to reduce SUV and truck manufacture to concentrate on smaller vehicles, even a non-US major like Nissan has expressed its considerable interest in the electric vehicle segment. (See: Ford to step up small car production; stalls pickup and SUV production and Nissan aims for global electric vehicle leadership; first product due in 2010)
"The Chevy Volt is a go," GM CEO Rick Wagoner told reporters ahead of the company's annual meeting with shareholders in Wilmington, Delaware.
"What we're saying with this approval is that the GM management and board believe the technical goals of the Volt are not only achievable, but achievable generally within the time frame we previously outlined," Wagoner said.
This was quite in contrast to his earlier statements where he had said the 2010 timeline would be a "stretch" to meet since GM was rushing to do basic battery-development work at the same time that it engineered a new vehicle from the ground up.
Considering the declining sales numbers of its other products in the face of record oil prices, competition from names like Toyota and pressure from the government and environmentalists to improve fuel economy on its vehicles, this reassessment of priorities is understandable.
The plug-in vehicle, introduced as a concept car in January 2007, will be powered by a lithium-ion battery that can be recharged either via a regular electrical socket when parked or by an onboard generator while driving.
Unlike gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, which run on a system that combines battery power and a combustion engine, the Volt will be powered entirely by an electric motor. The Volt's on-board engine will be used only to power the battery on longer trips, GM said.
The standard Volt generator will be configured to run on E85 fuel (85 per cent ethanol, 15 per cent gasoline), but other fuel sources, such as diesel, gasoline or even fuel cells are possible.
The vehicle is designed to run purely on electricity from on-board batteries for up to 40 miles (64 km), a large enough distance to cover the daily commutes of most Americans, which is around 33 miles (53 km). With use of a small internal combustion engine driving a generator to recharge the batteries, the vehicle's range is potentially increased to 640 miles (1,030 km) on the highway.
This marks one of the first attempts to adapt lithium-ion batteries, widely used in consumer electronics, to power a car. Toyota is also racing to market its own plug-in hybrid by 2010 using the same technology.
GM has been testing two sets of battery packs supplied by a subsidiary of Korea's LG Chem Ltd, and German auto parts supplier Continental AG using technology developed by privately held A123 Systems.
GM vice chairman of Global Product Development Robert Lutz said he expected to name a Volt battery supplier "soon" without elaborating.
The Volt concept vehicle was officially unveiled at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) on 7 January 2007 in Detroit, Michigan. An updated version was unveiled at the Shanghai Auto Show in April 2007 in Shanghai, China.
At the time of unveiling, the Volt project had been in existence for less than a year. The Volt was targeted to cost around $30,000. However, estimates have risen since then.
The product is expected to hit the showrooms in 2010 with an initial production run of 10,000 after which GM plans to ramp up capacity depending on the customer response.
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