GM: Software Is the “Glue” of the Chevy Volt, But Work Remains

Chevy Volt
General Motors (s GM) plans to fire up production of its extended-range electric Chevy Volt in the fourth quarter of this year — and in the months until then the automaker expects to focus on software and controls for the model, among other things. In a call with reporters this week, Andrew Farah, vehicle chief engineer for the Volt, called those systems the “glue” or “muscles” that “make this whole thing work.” (To hear more from GM on IT for the Volt, come to Green:Net on April 29).
Part of the goal, explained Farah, is to deliver “predictable performance” so that drivers don’t need to plan their day around the vehicle. But there’s more to it: Using lithium-ion cells from supplier LG Chem, software and controls around the battery pack are partly about gaining a competitive edge through proprietary technology. As Micky Bly, GM’s executive director for global electrical systems, hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries, put it, the idea is to quickly transform GM from a “smart shopper” in batteries to a “leader in battery development.”
In particular, Farah noted that GM has made “great internal strides” in the thermal management system for the battery pack, which uses lithium-ion cells from South Korea-based LG Chem. “This has not been a walk in the park by anybody,” said Bly, noting that the automaker has had to build up its engineering team, recruit a lot of talent and work with a raft of suppliers to learn about battery systems and develop new technology.
GM has set up a handful of labs as part of this effort, including one in Shanghai, China, that Bly said will be “a huge enabler” for the company due to the rapid pace of lithium-ion cell and module development in the region.
While work remains on the gen-1 Volt model (emissions and hot weather testing, for example, as well as tweaks to improve aerodynamics), GM has already begun making plans for second- and third-generations of the vehicle, and the battery in particular. The automaker hopes to use a battery that’s much, much cheaper — and possibly smaller — than the pack slated for deployment in the debut model.
Bly said that GM expects to make “generational changes” in the battery every 2-4 years, as opposed to the up to seven-year development cycle that’s more typical in the auto industry. While the automaker remains a couple years away from finalizing decisions about the architecture for that third-generation battery pack, Bly said he anticipates battery costs will drop by 50 percent or more for that model as energy density improves.
A few big unknowns still hang over the Volt, including the size of the fuel tank (which will affect the vehicle’s range), and what kind of fuel economy rating it will carry. While GM came out with a big advertising campaign boasting 230 MPG for the Volt last summer, the EPA has yet to release new rules for testing and labeling vehicles that get miles out of more than gallons of gasoline.
“We want to be selling cars by the end of the year,” Farah commented, “and it would be nice to have an EPA label in the window.” How that label should communicate relevant efficiency data to consumers in a way that’s easy to understand represents a particularly vexing question for an extended-range electric vehicle like the Volt, he said, because “it has such a dual personality,” depending on whether it’s running on the battery or the small gas engine designed to kick in when the battery gets depleted, typically after about 40 miles. Simplicity is key. As Farah put it, consumers “gotta know what they’re getting.”