General Motors yesterday gave electric car enthusiasts and a handful of journalists an opportunity to spin the Chevy Volt around a parking lot next to San Francisco’s AT&T Park. HybridCars.com had its first two or three minutes behind the wheel, spoke with the Volt team, and came away with these insights.
1The EV miles are the easy ones. Charge sustaining mode is the tough part.
The most widely known fact about the Volt is that it can travel for up to 40 miles using only electricity, before the engine comes on to maintain the battery pack’s state of charge. During those first 40 miles, the Volt behaves just like a pure electric car. There’s simply not much more to say about the driving experience and handling than it drives like an electric car: speedy, smooth, and whisper-quiet. (It will take some more time behind the wheel to determine if we like the dashboard instrumentation, which at first blush seemed slightly overwhelming.)
So, the unique proposition, and technical challenge, of the Volt is what happens after those 40 electric miles. “The EV mode was the easy thing,” said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Chevy Volt. The hard part, according to Posawatz, was using the vehicle’s sophisticated software to “blend and smooth out” how and when the engine is employed to extend the driving range.
“At low speeds, the engine almost never comes on in charge sustaining mode. At high speeds, we take advantage of running the RPMs a little bit higher, but never to a point where it affects the pleasability of the car. The engine is never roaring.”
2Additional driver controls are in the works.
We reported a few weeks ago that the Volt will have a “mountain mode,” allowing drivers to set a higher level of battery charge to provide extra resources for long steep uphill journeys. Posawatz told HybridCars.com that the European version of the Volt will probably offer a “hold” feature, although the name of the feature could change. “You can hit a button and wherever you’re at on your state of charge, it will hold the charge sustain at that point. It’s like saving your EV miles,” said Posawatz. This feature could be ideal for saving your EV miles after a long highway commute into a congested city, where the EV miles may be more useful.
3Car connectivity is key.
General Motors yesterday provided more details about its relationship with Google, and demonstrated that its Volt mobile app will allow drivers to monitor and schedule charging from a distance—as well as do tricks like open and close doors (from across the country) or download web directions to the car’s navigation system.
But there’s more to it than that. “If you understand a person’s driving patterns, you can perhaps in the future modify the operation of the vehicle, contoured to his or her driving pattern,” Posawatz said. He explained that it’s all about better understanding the customer’s needs and real-life behaviors, including potentially where to locate charging stations.
4GM is making the big shift to the customer buying process.
In the coming months, don’t expect any news flashes about how the Volt works or drives. GM has move on to the sales process. “We’re at the point where the vehicle and the technology are pretty much locked in,” said Rob Peterson, General Motors spokesperson. “Instead, we’re going to start seeing a lot of activity around how people actually put the car in their driveway.”
Peterson explained that the company has built about 130 Volt units so far, and those are almost all in the hands of engineers. That means consumer test drives are a ways off, because there simply are not yet enough cars to go around. In the coming weeks, these Volt-driving GM employees will begin the process of outfitting their own private garages with charging equipment, so the company can learn about any potential issues with the process.
The model year 2011 Chevy Volt will be produced “in the thousands,” according to Peterson, and by “the tens of thousands” in the following years. Sales of the 2011 Chevy Volt will take place from November 2010 to summer 2011, when the 2012 model year Volt will go on sale, mostly likely with few design and technology changes.
5The ultra-quiet Volt provides clues to let pedestrians and technicians know it’s on.
Much has been made about the potential threat of nearly silent hybrid and electric cars to blind (or unaware) pedestrians. Volt engineers solved the problem by allowing drivers to pull on the bright lights control to issue a chirp-like sound from the hood. It’s a lot less jarring than the horn, but loud enough to signal the car’s approach. In addition, mechanics and technicians popping open the hood might not know the car is on—that’s how quiet it is—so the engine comes on when the hood is opened.