A Chevrolet Volt update, two tiny Japanese EVs, and even a Tesla lawsuit

5 min read

For more on electric vehicles, see the slideshow ELECTRIC VEHICLES MOVE FORWARD...SLOWLY.

PHOTO: General Motors

Electric-car news is coming thick and fast. Two major Japanese automakers pumped up their green credentials by offering up their EVs for limited tests in the U.S. market, while mighty General Motors opened its kimono a tiny bit more with a technical progress update on its Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV). And a legal fight emerged into public view as Tesla Motors, of San Carlos, Calif., sued a former designer who launched his own plug-in hybrid car company.

Last month, Chevrolet updated 80 reporters from around the world on the progress of its much-touted Chevrolet Volt. With unprecedented openness, especially for a vehicle years from production, the company discussed its battery testing procedures, showed off the three-dimensional virtualization rooms that connect design teams around the world, and revealed a few glimpses of the latest Volt styling.

The message is that the Volt program is on course and that it's the company's ”Number One priority project,” in the words of Volt global vehicle chief engineer Frank Weber. ”This is not theory; this is real,” he stressed. Engineers are testing the two competing 16-kilowatt-hour battery packs--each 1.8 meters long (or just under 6 feet) and 170 kilograms (375 pounds)--around the clock. GM even provided details on the test cycles they're repeating, thousands of times, to pack 10 years' worth of customer use into the two-year test window that will permit a launch in late 2010.

Reporters also walked through GM's enormous wind-tunnel facility. Low aerodynamic drag is key to extending the Volt's range--at speed, it is more important than lower weight, due to aggressive regenerative braking that recaptures energy for recharging. GM's Bob Lutz admitted the ”electric Camaro” shape of the Volt concept was far from aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient of 0.43, higher than most cars today. ”It was a shoebox,” he said ruefully, promising a drag coefficient below 0.30--among the best in its class--for the final Volt.

In December, GM teased the press by showing the front corner of the latest styling model. It was smooth and swept-back compared with the angular concept. This time, chief E-Flex designer Bob Boniface briefly lifted the cover from a rear corner of a clay model being shaped by a numerically controlled milling arm while reporters watched. And visible in the wind tunnel was a third-scale model covered in camouflage tape, with an aerodynamics expert wielding a hose that sent propylene glycol mist over the car to show the airflow as a 50-kilometer-per-hour (31 miles per hour) wind roared over it.

What will the production Volt look like? If these models are indicative--and Boniface said ”the body's not frozen yet, but it's close”--it seems shorter and stubbier than the concept. Its Kamm tail is an abrupt vertical plane behind the rear wheels, with a high deck lid (actually a hatch, as the Volt will be a five-door hatchback). Its swept front has a distinct resemblance to Saab styling (another GM marque), and the car's shape somewhat resembles�a Toyota Prius. Hmm.

One innovation is the lack of an exposed exhaust pipe. The car has one, of course, for its small combustion engine (which drives a generator to keep the car running by charging its battery pack once it has exhausted the 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) of electric range). But that tailpipe outlet will be hidden under the car, reinforcing the primacy of the Volt's electric drive.

GM expects to continue briefing the media and the interested public on the Volt's progress. At the New York International Auto Show in late March, it made the development team available for ”Volt Nation,” sponsored by the private Web site GM-Volt.com. There, hundreds of Volt fans from around the country got definitive answers to their questions--or polite demurrals on sensitive topics--from the engineers actually creating the Volt.

At that same show, both Mitsubishi and Subaru showed tiny all-electric cars it plans to sell in their home market within two years--and announced it would be testing them in the U.S. Both Subaru's R1e and Mitsubishi's i-MiEV are adapted from vehicles sold with gasoline engines in the kei class, which limits dimensions (3.4 m long, 2 m high, 1.5 m wide), engine size (0.66 liter), and power (47 kilowatts).

The Subaru R1e, the smaller looking of the two, is a two-door hatchback based on the R1 minicar. The company partnered with Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to develop the fleet of 40 electric R1s it has been testing since 2006. It uses a 40-kW permanent-magnet motor, powered by a lithium-ion battery pack of unspecified capacity, though the company quotes a top speed of 100 km/h, a range up to 80 km, and an 8-hour charging time on household current. It also projects that battery life will be 10 years or 160 000 km.

In Japan, Subaru plans to build 100 more R1e's and sell them to real-world consumers by the end of next year. Meanwhile, back in the States, Subaru will provide two cars to the New York Power Authority this summer for three months of testing in New York City. (Because the R1 was not designed to meet U.S. safety or equipment standards, the cars must ultimately be returned to Japan--or be crushed.)

Though still tiny, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV appears larger than the Subaru due to its egg-shaped four-door body. The ”i” concept on which it is based is lauded for the interior room it packs into the standard kei dimensions. Its ”rear midship” engine sits on its side under the rear seat, giving it the longest cabin in its class, with space freed up at the front for passengers. The i-MiEV replaces the engine, transmission, and fuel tank with a lithium-ion battery pack, motor, inverter, and electronics.

Its 330V, 16-kWh battery has 22 modules of 4 cells each, developed by a partnership of Mitsubishi and battery maker GS Yuasa Corporation, the only mass producer of large-format lithium-ion batteries in Japan. It powers a 47-kW motor that generates 180 newton meters of torque. Claimed maximum speed is 130 km/h, with a range of roughly 160 km.

Mitsubishi plans to sell the i-MiEV in Japan by 2009, and it is sending at least one to its U.S. arm for evaluation. But like the R1e, the right-hand-drive i-MiEV test vehicles must be returned to Japan because they cannot legally be sold in North America. David Patterson, senior manager of regulatory affairs and certification, Mitsubishi Research and Design America, said the company is looking seriously at whether to certify the ”i” car for sale in North American markets--which would be a daring move, since it would be smaller than any other car sold except for one: the two-seater Smart forTwo.

Finally, electric-car start-up Tesla Motors has sued automotive designer Henrik Fisker, whom it hired last year to do the body design for its White Star plug-in hybrid four-door sedan. That car will follow the Tesla Roadster, now in production. The suit alleges that Fisker took the contract only to gain access to Tesla's trade secrets, did substandard work for Tesla, and then used the fee to establish Fisker Automotive, of Irvine, Calif.--which showed off the Karma, a sleek, four-door plug-in hybrid concept, at this year's North American International Auto Show, in Detroit. Industrial espionage or tactical maneuvering? You be the judge.

Editor's Note: General Motors provided airfare and two nights of lodging to Spectrum's reporter.

About the Author

John Voelcker has written about automotive technology and other topics for 20 years. He covered software and microprocessor design for IEEE Spectrum from 1985 to 1990.


For more on electric vehicles, see the slideshow ELECTRIC VEHICLES MOVE FORWARD...SLOWLY.

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