In last year's eco-movie Who Killed the Electric Car?, writer/director Chris Paine documented the birth and eventual demise of GM's (NYSE: GM ) EV-1 electric automobile (b. 1996, d. March 2005, R.I.P.).
Inspired by California's 1990 Zero-Emission Vehicle Law, the EV-1 was more a gesture of goodwill than a product intended to earn a profit. Although Paine lays the blame for the EV-1's demise at the feet of many players -- from GM to Big Oil to fickle government legislators -- I suspect the answer is more banal. The car's 150-mile range and top speed of 80 miles per hour restricted its potential market to big-city commuters. The fact that this range could be cut in half in cold weather further drained the buying pool (or, actually, the leasing pool -- it was only ever leased).
Big, always-warm cities? So GM really only stood a chance of making significant sales in Dallas, L.A., and, hmm, Rio de Janeiro. Considering that Dallas isn't exactly Green Central, Rio was busy going the ethanol route, and half the population of L.A. was on the waiting list for a Toyota (NYSE: TM ) Prius, I think I can see why GM killed the car.
Back to the future
But that's neither here nor there. Whatever the reason for the EV-1's cancellation, the car does seem to have served a purpose as a test case, as evidenced by what GM unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show this weekend: The "Volt." Unlike hybrid gas-electric offerings from Toyota, Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , and Ford (NYSE: F ) , the Volt promises to be truly unique -- the first commercial car not powered by the internal combustion engine.
Oh, the car will still have an engine. It's just that this engine is not what will be making the car go "zoom." According to GM, the Volt will burn E85 (that's 85% ethanol, 15% gas) fuel in its 1-liter, three-cylinder engine, and it will pump the electricity that results directly into its onboard batteries. But as for powering the car per se, that's going to be all battery, all the time.
Like the EV-1, the Volt will be fully independent of Big Oil most of the time. GM says that after charging overnight for six or seven hours, the car will be able to go a good 40 miles -- twice as much as the average American drives in a day -- before needing more juice. If called upon to drive further, the engine will kick in and, fully fueled, be able to stretch the Volt's total driving range out to a full 640 miles. Further improvements over the EV-1 include more passenger room, longer battery life, smaller batteries, and higher cruising speeds.
Speaking of improvements, when compared with GM's nemesis, the Toyota Prius, the Volt will be boasting approximately equal driving range and will compare favorably on most other metrics. For example, the Prius sedan is rated as getting about 50 mpg. According to GM, the technology to be used in the Volt will suffice to give even a hybrid SUV as much as 70 miles to the gallon. Nice. And considering how much U.S. automakers love their trucks, that should play nicely toward one of GM's strengths. Considering also how much U.S. auto drivers love their horsepower, the Volt's claim of 160 horses and top speed of 120 mph would dwarf the Prius' 110 ponies and top speed of 105.
The no-more-ignition key
If you've read carefully so far, you've noticed that two words, and their derivations, have popped up repeatedly: "batteries" and "will." That's not by accident, because the key to GM's taking the Volt from concept car to mass-market success hinges on its ability to get the batteries to work properly. And for now, that achievement lies in the future tense.
As even GM admits, "the technological hurdles are real" here. At the same time as it was wowing the crowd with its Volt this weekend, GM refused to give a hard-and-fast date for when its much-ballyhooed plug-in hybrid vehicle -- which, like the Volt, will rely on a new breed of lithium-ion battery -- will be available for sale. The reason: The Volt and the plug-in hybrid (to be based on the firm's Saturn Vue Green Line) both depend on "further battery development [that] will define the critical path to start of production." GM's best guess at this point appears to be that the battery technology won't be ready to go online before 2010 at the earliest.
As for how much later than "earliest" the true date might be, that lies very much in the hands of GM partners Johnson Controls and Cobasys (the Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) /Energy Conversion Devices (Nasdaq: ENER ) joint venture), both of which are charged with developing the Volt's next-generation lithium ion batteries. If or when they're successful, though, you'll certainly hear about it. At the risk of making a pun, AutoNation (NYSE: AN ) CEO Mike Jackson was quoted as saying that once the Volt becomes a reality, "It will create a buzz."
While I suspect that Jackson was referring to the auto industry's reaction, I guarantee you that investors will be talking about this story when it breaks as well. If it breaks at all.
Who Killed the Electric Car? bills itself as a documentary -- a movie based entirely on fact. GM investors, meanwhile, will be hoping that in a few years' time, the Volt will turn out to be something more than fiction.
For more hybrid reading, try:
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above.