[Note to readers: I was one of a select few bloggers to be invited by General Motors to a behind the scenes opportunity at the current Chicago Auto Show to meet and interview top management. As far as GM knew or I could discern, they were the only major auto company to reach out to the blogosphere and they should be given credit for that. What follows in this and a subsequent post or two are some highlights, headlines and ruminations from this day long experience. Of course my focus was and is on what I write about here: alternative energy, and new advanced technology that might change our lives in the years ahead. Seen through the filter of global warming, there are few more important objectives than greatly reducing the use of the internal combustion engine around the world.]
The good news from the Chicago Auto Show is that hybrid and electric cars and innovative technologies are clearly being embraced by the large companies. Yes, there are the cool and innovative concept cars scattered around the floor that may never come to market, but are used by the auto companies for positioning. I wanted to see what is real, what will actually come to market and how, in this case GM, is truly reacting to the global warming reality we all now share. I was impressed, and I learned some interesting things.
I was extremely interested and curious about the Chevrolet Volt. I had seen the hype about this electric car when it was revealed to the world at the Detroit Auto Show in January. The headline then was that GM would produce this battery-powered four passenger vehicle that uses a gas engine to create additional electricity to extend the driving range. The Volt can be fully charged by plugging it into a 110-volt outlet for 6 hours a day. A full charge can deliver up to 40 miles of driving in the city. This is a significant number as more than 50% of Americans live 20 miles or less from work. If the car was used just for commuting and errands in the neighborhood it is possible as GM Vice Chairman (and automotive legend) Bob Lutz said: “You might never burn a drop of gas during the life of the car”. I am excited that GM is making their car under the Chevrolet brand and not some new ‘tech’ brand, as the Chevrolet brand has long been the popular, mainstream GM brand. It sends the right message that this is to be a popular car for America..
When I saw the show model of the Volt, I was thrilled to see that it was an extremely stylish and innovative looking car. I have always believed that it is imperative for the alternative energy automotive business to create cars that are as stylish and cool. We all want to ‘do the right thing’ about driving cars that use less and less of petroleum energy, but we have all grown up in a car crazed culture and like cool design and cars that are fun to drive. If all electric cars are, stylistically speaking, the automotive design equivalent of earth shoes we have to let our desire to be conscious global citizens win out over our desire for style and fun. That will limit the number of cars sold. If, however, electric and hybrid cars can look and drive great, more people will buy them. The goal of course is to get as large a percentage of global drivers as possible to drive such cars.
When speaking with the Volt design team I asked them as to how much of the incredibly cool design features, inside and out would actually make it to the model that ultimately goes on sale. They obviously hope as much as possible as they agree that design should be one of the key selling points for the electric car. They did say they had been given direction by the company to be innovative and cutting edge during the design process. While there clearly are some elements that will not make it to the Volt that arrives at your dealer’s show room, it has so much of a cool quotient already that even a style compromised mass production version should hopefully prove to be head-turning stylish.
So now the key questions I had was when will this come to market, how much will it cost and how many do you plan to produce? The answer to all three of these questions revolves around the battery component. Right now there is no battery that exists that can satisfy the basic requirements of a mass production vehicle that is also affordably prices. Lutz stated the metrics: “The battery must be able to last for 10 years, be able to sustain 5,000 charges and not generate significant heat”. The lithium ion battery evidently can do that on an individual basis, but when connected together to generate enough power for a car, they create too much heat and durability is called into question..
Troy Clarke, the GM VP for North America said, in response to my question that the Volt would make it to market “by the end of the decade”. Surprised that it would take so long, given that all the parts to the Volt are already used in production on other vehicles, I pressed him as to why they are taking so long. He said it was the unknowns around the battery. How long will it take for a battery to be developed that can not only satisfy the stated metrics but also be at a cost that will not price the Volt out of the mass market? When I asked him if GM was fully committed to the Volt he gave a firm yes, going on to say that GM wants to sell cars and they already had numerous requests from people and companies that wanted to buy multiple Volts. He made a clear point that the market place has expressed strong interest in electric and hybrid cars and GM wanted to sell cars that the market wants.
In a later interview with Larry Burns, VP Research & Development and Planning for GM, I pressed him on whether the process to solve the battery issue would be slowed down by a ‘not invented here’ position, meaning that GM would insist on internally developing the battery. He said that the company has put out the message to key suppliers and other companies that they are serious about bringing the Volt and other vehicles that use battery technology to market and to please help them get there quickly and affordably. [More on my incredibly interesting conversation with Larry later this week]
Now there is battery technology that can be utilized, but it is either limited or expensive. The Tesla Motor Company is bringing out their incredibly fast, high performance car, but at a $100,000 price. The EV1 battery technology of the 1990s did not provide enough power, durability and low cost to be practical for the larger auto market.
So there it is. The reality of great numbers of us driving fun and affordable electric cars within the next 5years is contingent on the invention of new batteries that can be durable, affordable and mass produced. GM, and other companies, by their firm commitment to mass produce electric cars have in effect created a future mass market. I have consistently stated here that I believe that conservation technologies and alternative energy are the greatest economic opportunity in the history of humanity. Who wants to get rich?
Ray Bradbury, the great science fiction writer, was famously hired to come up with a short description of the history of entrepreneurship in the U.S. After much deliberation the phrase he came up with was: “The Garage”. Where are the Jobs and Wozniaks of the battery business?