GM Electrification Downplays All-Electric Cars
On Wednesday, General Motors published a roadmap for its vehicle electrification program. Pam Fletcher, global chief engineer for Volt and plug-In hybrid electric powertrains at GM, explains the three broad categories of vehicle electrification: light electrification, plug-in hybrid (or extended-range EV), and pure electric. She also makes it clear that most of GM's emphasis will be on the first two categories—with the Chevy Spark EV, a limited production vehicle, the sole mention of any pure electric cars.
GM's eAssist models have a small lithium-ion battery pack, an electric motor that provides boost under heavy acceleration, and a trigger to turn the engine off when it would otherwise idle. This system is found today in the Buick LaCrosse, Buick Regal, and Chevy Malibu—and will be used in the 2014 Chevy Impala. GM claims this feature saves $2,500 in fuel over five years. Because the electric motor assist doesn't drive the car in electric-only mode, this is not technically a hybrid, according to Fletcher. This technology reduces fuel consumption, but does not offer the dramatic reductions in oil consumption that come with using grid-supplied energy from a plug, stored in batteries, and put through an efficient electric motor.
The Chevy Volt has been GM's most visible foray into electrified vehicles. Later this year it will be joined by the Cadillac ELR, which also features an extended-range electric drive train. It has a large enough battery pack to give the Volt a 35 to 40 mile electric range, and a gasoline engine that's used to maintain the pack state-of-charge when it becomes depleted. GM claims that on average, Volt owners get 900 miles of range out of a tank of gasoline, or about 6 weeks of driving. Annual fuel cost is $950 a year, which GM said represents about $1,450 a year in fuel savings.
The 40-ish mile electric range was chosen because the typical driver, in the U.S., drives less than 40 miles a day, on average. That means typical daily driving can be done in electric mode, assuming the car is recharged at home every night. Volt drivers avoid range anxiety, and GM's marketing of the Volt for years has told us to be very afraid of the range anxiety that comes from a pure electric car. However, Volt owners report a different problem referred to as "gasoline anxiety"—the worry associated with trying to avoid conditions where the gas engine turns on. Volt owners charge more frequently than drivers of battery-electric vehicles.
The Volt is indeed a plug-in electric car. However, the on-board gas engine supports the mindset that the only way to travel long distances is by burning gasoline. Perhaps more importantly, the Volt—which for years was championed by GM as its poster child for electrification—is characterized by Fletcher as just one technology in a continuum from start-stop microhybrids to pure EVs (not to mention fuel cell cars that could be around the corner). The Chevy Volt is no longer portrayed as a silver bullet.
Not Much for Pure EVs
GM recently began selling the Chevy Spark EV in limited quantities in California and Oregon. This is the company's first all electric car since the EV1. The limited manufacturing volume and distribution have led EV supporters to describe the Spark EV as a "compliance car," produced only to just barely meet California's mandate for zero emission vehicles. It has an electric range of about 82 miles. GM claims a Spark EV owner would save $1,800 a year in fuel costs. It's also quickly earning a reputation for its impressive torque.
Using its SAE DC Fast Charging fast charging port, the Spark EV can get about an 80 percent charge in as little as 20 minutes. (The fast charging support isn't compatible with the CHAdeMO standard.) As Fletcher admits, the SAE-compatible chargers will be available "in the near future," so there will not be Fast Chargers available for the first customers. That means the fast charge port on the Spark EV will be of little value for an undetermined period of time.
In March, GM's management repeated its hope for an electric car with 200 miles of range, resulting from a breakthrough in battery technology. Perhaps the company is waiting for that possibility,
and a novel technology's ability to provide the level of driving range that consumers say they want, before making a big push into all-electric cars. Who knows? But according to its published roadmap, the future of vehicle electrification will mostly use batteries and electric motors in combination with internal combustion engines and tailpipes.
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