Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

My Take on the Chevy Volt

Posted on: March 25, 2010

There seems to be a pent up demand for my unqualified opinion on this matter, so I guess I’ll speak up.  There are certainly teaching opportunities here.  Students can learn about new developments in battery technology, how systems have changed from mechanical designs to drive by wire technology,  electric motors, torque, gasoline electric generators, the impact of electric cars on our environment, including how power is generated at power plants today.  Students can investigate how an electric car changes the cost of ownership over a period of years.  A car like the Volt opens up the science dialog, I like that.

I spent about 20 minutes talking to their engineer Mel.  Mel is not a 50 year-old guy with a beer belly, she is a very well informed and impressive engineer.  I love that GM puts female engineers in the limelight.  There is still a serious lack of role models for women in science.  I need to get her into my classroom to open some eyes.  Anyway, Mel and I had a great discussion, and in an effort not to put words into her mouth, all of the following statements here are mine.

The Chevy Volt is a great step forward.  Toyota beat GM to the punch with the Prius, but the Volt is not a hybrid; it’s an electric car with a motor that is used to provide electricity when the batteries run down.  The Lithium Ion technology is a big step forward.  Previous electric cars use banks of lead-acid storage cells that weighed more than your mother-in-law and took a long time to charge.  I know the power tool industry was a little reluctant to use Li-Ion cells a while ago, but they seemed to have tamed the beast.

The real problem is that the current Li-Ion batteries aren’t really the answer, they are just a stepping stone.  Somebody, in some university or company somewhere, is going to invent a better battery that can deliver the energy storage needed for an electric car.  When that happens, he or she will be an overnight billionaire.  Right now, the car can go up to 40 miles on a charge.  That would work for me, I commute 16 miles each way.  The cost to plug in is only pennies compared to a tank of gas.  Sure the energy is coming from somewhere, and the power station may be using fossil fuels, but I’d like to believe they operate much more efficiently than my current car.  The range of the car is comparable to any gasoline powered car.  You will still get 300+ miles to a tank of gas and full battery.  But imagine only needing to fill up once a month or three because you mostly power up off the grid.

The Volt isn’t really a new design from the bottom up.  Instead, it’s a quick fix to get GM into the market.  The car needs to lose weight.  I think the use of an axle could be replaced with independent motors for each wheel.  An axle seems inefficient to me, adding both friction and weight.  Maybe motor technology isn’t where it needs to be, but that will improve quickly also.  Electric motors provide lots of torque, the issue is going to be keeping the weight down and making reliable control software.

Will it succeed?  Our high school seniors are going to be buying a new car in a few years, I’d ask them if they would buy it.  Of course the price and early reliability are going to be critical.  I’m pretty sure most of the 12,000 attendees at the conference would seriously consider purchasing an electric car.  It’s not going to be profitable for a couple of years, but if GM plays its cards right and doesn’t do something stupid, they could own the market before the competition gets the Amp or Ohm on the show floor.


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