Volt Teardown Reveals High-Tech Upgradability

A three-day teardown and cataloging of components from a Chevy Volt has shown its electronic controls to be exceedingly sophisticated and apparently designed for future upgrades.

Performed by a team of automotive engineers for Munro & Associates of suburban Detroit and attended by Reuters and EE Times, this sort of thing is more often done privately by automakers looking to reverse engineer competitors’ vehicles.

Based on Reuters’ report, Automotive News noted that the Volt’s complex electronics are a “blank slate” ready for “quick improvements,” thus making this first-of-its-type car one step closer to consumer electronics which also see more frequent updates than automobiles usually do.

GM of Europe head Nick Reilly has been previously quoted as saying there will be no new generations of Chevrolet’s Voltec vehicles before 2015, but this vehicle’s circuitry reportedly looks like it’s ready when GM is.

Deconstructing the Volt

The teardown was not performed under GM’s watch, and for the most part, GM continues to keep many developments secret as it conservatively moves forward, with the Volt “halo” car leading the way.

GM could not prevent prying engineers from gaining further insights, however, as they removed over 600 components from the Volt. Among other things, the Volt’s circuitry suggested a development plan not just for the Volt, but also for other GM electric vehicles, such as the Spark EV.

Analysts observing the Volt’s teardown confirmed GM clearly left unused circuit board space for more computing power to improve performance – be it EV range or power or both.

“They’re reserving a lot of this real estate for future development so that they can easily put more components on here if they want to,” said John-Scott Thomas, a senior engineer at UBM TechInsights, of a circuit board removed from the Volt’s battery pack.

Munro & Associates CEO Sandy Munro was similarly impressed with one of the Volt’s circuit boards held up for inspection.

“This is, without a doubt, the most advanced board I’ve seen General Motors put out and it’s got room to grow,” Munro CEO Sandy Munro said. “This is hot stuff.”

Holding up a circuit board from the Volt’s inverter with its 32-bit Freescale Semiconductor chips, UBM’s Thomas said it was “more of a development board. This is their first pass. There are places here where you can see that it looks as though you should be able to put an integrated circuit and there’s nothing there,” he said. “They might already have plans to add that in at a future date.”

Freescale and Japan’s Renesas Electronics are dominant forces in the $23.6 billion global auto chip arena, controlling about two-thirds of the market.

The Volt actually has about 20 Freescale chips – around twice as many chips as a typical internal combustion powered vehicle.

In their haste to get the Volt to market, GM’s engineers were said by Freescale to have taken a conservative approach with the Volt’s internal layout.

“They didn’t have as much time to do as many redesigns,” said Freescale auto field engineer John Cotner. “Risk reduction was a more important factor than it is in a lot of vehicle design.”
Automotive News quoted chief Volt engineer Doug Parks who has previously said GM played it safe with the first-generation vehicle which was built in anticipation of next-generation batteries and other future refinements.

For at least the past 18 months, Cotner said, Freescale and GM have been working on the next
technological leap. The route they are taking involves fewer, smaller modules in electric vehicles.

GM would not divulge however whether the Spark battery will make use of Freescale chips.

What’s next?

Whether the pace of Volt proliferation and development will be quickened or curtailed remains to be seen.

GM has said it is waiting until May or June to decide whether to fulfill its projected 60,000 unit global production this calendar year, or notch it back if it sees less demand.

Assuming GM and the Volt can get past the politically motivated PR gauntlet they had to run through last year into this, and demand increases, the Volt will be ready for Gen Two in a few years – in fact it is already partly built into the Volt’s DNA.


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