In November, General Motors chairman Rick Wagoner made a rather provocative statement. In a speech to kick off the Los Angeles Auto Show, he said, "At GM, we believe tomorrow's automobiles must be flexible enough to accommodate many different energy sources. And a key part of that flexibility will be enabled by the development of electrically driven cars."
Was GM "unkilling" the electric car?
That seems to be the case. This weekend, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where this is being written, GM (which is a client of the sustainability strategy firm GreenOrder, with which I am affiliated) unveiled what might be called "EV2": E-Flex, a platform of plug-in electric vehicles that are able to recharge via a small, efficient engine that can burn anything from gasoline to biofuels to hydrogen.
The first model in the E-Flex series, the Chevy Volt (pictured here), works something like this: You can drive it in pure electric mode for about 40 miles, after which it needs to be recharged, via a standard 110-volt outlet. So, if your commute is typical -- 78% of U.S. households drive under 40 miles a day, according to GM -- you'll rarely have to rely on additional fuel. However, if you drive more than 40 miles between charges, the supplementary engine kicks in. Unlike, say, a Prius, in which the engine sends power directly to the wheels, the Volt's engine is used only to recharge the battery. That extends the range of the Volt to about 640 miles, giving the car the equivalent of about 50 miles per gallon of gasoline (or many times that, if you're using E85 or any other non-gasoline fuel).
That all sounds pretty good, you're likely thinking. So, when can you buy a Chevy Volt? Well, you can't. You see, it's just a concept car.
Like many of the coolest cars on display at the COBO Center here in Detroit, the Volt is not yet for sale. And GM isn't officially saying when you'll be able to find a Volt in your local Chevy showroom. (Unofficially, I'm told that GM is racing to get it out by the end of the decade.)
The barrier is the battery: there is none yet available that meets the Volt's technical requirements. That's changing, albeit slowly. More than a score of companies are developing batteries for electric vehicles. Just last week, GM announced that it awarded contracts to two suppliers to design and test lithium-ion batteries for use in the Saturn Vue Green Line plug-in hybrid SUV that is under development.
(Battery technology turns out to be incredibly complex, as evidenced by the explanation I received from my colleague Michael Millikin, who runs Green Car Congress. "The battery systems for the first production plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles depend on the interrelationship of a number of factors," he began, "but basically boil down to cell optimization for a given category of application and battery system design for the application." I admit to getting lost after that. You are encouraged to visit his fine site for more on the topic.)
Could GM release an interim version of the Volt before it had the perfect battery? Some would like to see that. For example, Felix Kramer of CalCars.org, who is readying a campaign to put 1,000 plug-in hybrids on California roads (not unlike GM's Project Driveway, which will be putting 100 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road starting later this year). Kramer says interim demonstrations can drive innovation and refine plug-in vehicles as well as "show America and the world what's possible now."
For their part, the folks at GM -- who, only a year or so ago were fairly despondent about the prospects of ever establishing GM as a player in the green arena -- are practically giddy about the Volt announcement, and the resulting positive media coverage. They view E-Flex and the Volt as a potential turnaround technology for the company, which until relatively recently hadn't had many good, green stories to tell.
"We wanted to show our overall commitment to environmental excellence," Beth Lowery, GM's vice president for environment and energy, told me after the Volt event. "We’ve been working on it for decades, but nothing was showing through. I think this really broke through. This allows people to take us seriously."
But it's not just GM singing its own praises. At the Volt launch, l ran into Chris Paine, producer of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? During the Volt launch event, I couldn't help but note Paine's rapt attention and enthusiastic applause. I caught up with him afterwards to get his reaction and he was positively ecstatic. "I think it's fantastic," he responded. "This is better than any award I could ever get as a filmmaker."
Paine says he's currently working on a sequel to his movie, about who's reviving the electric car. This time, I'm guessing, GM could be the hero, not the goat.