For the first 40 miles, the Chevy Volt is all electric. For the next 300 miles, it’s some blend of EV and hybrid.
When GM first introduced the Chevy Volt concept in 2007, it invented a new term to describe how the car works: extended-range electric vehicle (ER-EV). It was a tactic to distance the Volt from conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius, and to rightfully show legislators that the Volt is not just a hybrid with a bigger battery.
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The EV term stuck to the Volt, because the wheels are exclusively powered by the car’s 150-horsepower electric motor for the first 40 miles, while there is sufficient charge in the 16-kilowatt hour battery pack. That hasn’t changed. But in an exclusive interview with HybridCars.com, Rob Peterson, General Motors spokesperson, would not rule out the Volt’s use of its on-board gas engine to power the wheels under some conditions.
“Efficiency is the Volt’s mantra,” Peterson said. “We will take whatever method we have to get there.” Asked if Volt engineers would use the gas engine to power the wheels—a signature of a parallel hybrid system—if it meant greater efficiency, Peterson replied, “You could do it. Absolutely. It’s a matter of software.” He added, “You have some motors, a planetary gear box, there’s a variety of things we can do in there.”
While not revealing details about the Volt’s technical design, Peterson made it clear that the Chevy Volt employs some degree of hybrid efficiency strategies while the car is in so-called “charge-sustaining” mode.
According to Peterson, Volt engineers borrowed technology not only from its previous electric car, the EV1, but also from the company’s two-mode hybrid system—a clutched gas-electric system designed to give hybrids as much efficiency on the highway as in city driving.
HybridCars.com first learned, from anonymous sources, about the possibility of the Volt working slightly like a hybrid—rather than always as a pure electric vehicle—in January 2010. Since that time, when asked about the subject, company officials would only refer to “secret sauce” or “magic in the box”—and say that the full story will later be revealed. GM plans to make a full presentation about the Volt’s efficiency strategies at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual conference in January 2011. Information, although sketchy, is emerging now because the car is coming closer to its November 2010 launch—when owners (and investigators) will have a chance to get under the hood.
The Lines Are Blurred
Ultimately, the debate about whether the Chevy Volt is an electric car or a plug-in hybrid is academic. An entire category of vehicles, known as electric-drive, is emerging. It begins with conventional hybrids—likely to be the most popular in the category—that use a small amount of battery power to dramatically improve the gas-powered cars. The category continues with plug-in hybrids that use electricity for a set number of miles until the batteries are depleted—and then pure electric cars that don’t carry a gas tank or engine on board. From there, labels and marketing spin only serves to obfuscate the relative benefits of all the electric-drive vehicles. Each one will play a critical role in reducing the environmental and geo-political impact of oil consumption.
HybridCars.com: Do you think it matters whether the Volt is called an extended-range electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid?
Peterson: What I want people to know is that it’s a full performance battery electric vehicle for the first 40 miles. And after that, it has an extended range capability. It gives you the freedom to do your 340 miles. I don’t care what you call it. What I want them to know is that it’s capable of being any person’s only vehicle, regardless of what category it is.
If people say it’s a super efficient plug-in hybrid that’s all electric for the first 40 miles, and after that it works as the most efficient possible plug-in hybrid, you’re okay with that as well?
I’m all right with that. The reason I’m all right with that is, at the end of the day, consumers, when they bring that vehicle home, they’re going to say, “Check this vehicle out. It does everything for me that I want it to do. And it’s electric. Listen to how quiet it is. Feel the acceleration.”