Electric Power Steals the Show

The annual Detroit Auto Show offered a feast of technology, and the best dish of all was an electric-drive concept called the Chevrolet Volt

PHOTO: Jeffrey Sauger/General Motors

GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz shows off the Chevrolet Volt concept car, a so-called series hybrid, in which the batteries do all the work and the gasoline engine merely recharges them.

Detroit in January is cloudy and cold. But the city’s annual North American International Auto Show is still the only place to be for car buffs, people who know it as an excellent showcase for new auto technology.

This year some 7000 journalists came to the show, and there was a lot for us to cover. For instance, Audi, BMW, and Volkswagen said they will sell vehicles using Mercedes-Benz’s Bluetec system for reducing emissions from diesel engines. And by 2008, the carmakers expect to offer ”50-state” diesels that meet even the limits that California has set (and that several Northeastern states have adopted).

But what stole the show was General Motors’ announcement that it will build cars that can accept a new kind of hybrid electric drive, starting in 2010. The news gave a much-needed shot in the arm to a company that for the first time in 70 years is expected to sell fewer cars than one of its rivals—Toyota.

Embodying the plan is the Chevrolet Volt, the first ”serial hybrid” concept car shown by a major manufacturer. In a serial design, the engine has no connection to the wheels at all. Instead, it turns a generator that charges batteries, the batteries power a motor, and the motor drives the car. The Volt is designed to go about 64 kilometers (40 miles) on a single charge, enough to cover many drivers’ daily requirements without ever engaging the tiny, 1.0-liter engine, whose only purpose is to serve as what GM calls a ”range extender.” Most of the time, the car would recharge on wall current back in the garage—hence the term ”plug-in hybrid.”

Its 64-km range sets the Volt apart from today’s hybrids. They run mainly on gasoline, or on gasoline with an assist from electricity, and are capable of only a few minutes of pure electric operation. That’s because they rely on nickel-metal hydride batteries designed for high peak power rather than for maximum energy storage. The Volt, on the other hand, is designed for lithium-ion batteries, the kind in laptops.

To make the concept into a production car, GM will need something that it admits isn’t yet commercially available: automotive-strength lithium-ion batteries. Dozens of companies are working hard to design and test them, but cars turn out to be demanding customers, compared to consumer electronics. Laptops and mobile phones don’t have to survive 64-km side impacts, or work in temperatures from –30 °C to 249 °C (–22 °F to 480 °F) or during heavy dust storms. Worse yet, lithium-ion batteries for autos must last 10 years, through 4000 deep-discharge cycles—and when’s the last time your laptop battery (or your laptop, for that matter) lasted 10 years?

GM did say that it has signed R&D contracts with two battery groups, and that it planned to design small cars starting around 2010 to accept elements of the drivetrain architecture outlined in the Volt. To find out how serious the company is, just wait a year and see whether it is testing a running version of the Volt (right now, the concept can do little more than sit on its pedestal).

One thing is clear: GM is not thinking of this technology as a niche product. Unlike the EV1 two-seater, its all-electric production car of 10 years ago, the Volt is a four-seat, four-door sedan—the ”sweet spot” of the small-car market—and its electric motor produces 120 kilowatts of peak power and 320 newton-meters of peak torque, powered by a 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.

It was ironic that GM staked so big a claim in the ”green” car game at the same show where Toyota—known for its hybrids—launched the dual-cab CrewMax version of its new Tundra full-size pickup truck, perhaps the heaviest, thirstiest vehicle it has ever sold.

Ford, too, unveiled a serial hybrid concept at Detroit, but instead of using an engine and a generator as a range extender, it chose a Ballard hydrogen fuel cell. The concept is called the Airstream, after the iconic streamlined silver travel trailers, which it resembles. Featuring asymmetric windows and an entire body side that lifts up—from white plastic seats to a so-called modern lava lamp the size of a fire hydrant, which showed soothing flame images on a circular LCD—this hyper-mod minivan has a radical style and interior décor that largely overshadows its power train. Ford did not announce plans to produce any of the Airstream’s technologies, however.

BMW showed its Hydrogen 7, a large luxury sedan with a 6.0-L V12 engine that can run on two very different fuels. It carries both 74 L of gasoline and 8 kilograms of hydrogen, giving it a range of 483 km from gasoline and another 201 km from hydrogen. Unusually, the hydrogen is not stored in compressed form but cryogenically, supercooled to –253 °C. To accommodate the two fuels, the engine has been detuned from its standard 327 kW to 194 kW (438 hp to 260 hp). BMW will make only 100 Hydrogen 7s, half for Berlin and 25 or 30 to be lent to opinion leaders, VIPs, and celebrities in Los Angeles. Where to get liquid hydrogen? The company has created a support fleet of mobile liquid-hydrogen tankers.

Photo: Toyota Motor Corporation

Toyota's FT-HS hybrid concept looks like what it does--go very, very fast.

Toyota’s angular FT-HS (for Future Toyota Hybrid Sport) sports coupe was the most radical demonstration showing that electric power can be used for pure speed. Technical details are sparse, but the FT-HS is said to go from 0 to about 100 km/h (0 to 60 mph) in roughly 4 seconds—comparable to supercars costing well over US $100 000. It does this with a 3.5-liter V6 coupled to a new generation of its Hybrid Synergy Drive. The concept included a number of advanced technologies in other areas, including carbon-fiber wheels, LED lights, and sliding roof panels made of Kevlar.

Beyond power trains, a variety of new technologies appeared in other cars and concepts. Ford, for example, partnered with Microsoft to launch a technology called Sync, which it plans to build into every car it makes. Sync gives drivers hands-free control of Bluetooth mobile phones through voice commands, and it transfers information wirelessly among laptops, music players, and other devices. It even reads text messages and e-mail to the driver through the car’s sound system.

Turning to safety, Volvo’s XC60small SUV concept previewed an anticollision system the company plans to offer within two years. Called CitySense, the system uses optical radar to monitor the speed of the car in front of it. It will ”pretension” the brakes if it senses the distance closing quickly, and automatically apply the car’s brakes to prevent impacts at speeds up to 30 km/h (19 mph). Those crashes make up three-quarters of all reported collisions, so the payoff could be substantial.

Overall, it was a somber show. U.S. automakers are coming off a year when they lost billions of dollars and shed tens of thousands of employees. Meanwhile, Japanese and Korean makers continue to take U.S. market share and launch new vehicles.

But what a difference a year makes. At last year’s show, plug-in hybrids weren’t even mentioned. This year, North America’s two largest carmakers both showed concepts using the technology—and GM said it is moving aggressively toward building plug-in, electrically driven vehicles. That was enough to sate any car buff’s appetites…until next year’s show, anyway.

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