Macro Economic Trends and Risks
General Motor's New Hybrids

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By Milligram46
June 23, 2008

Posts selected for this feature rarely stand alone. They are usually a part of an ongoing thread, and are out of context when presented here. The material should be read in that light. How are these posts selected? Click here to find out and nominate a post yourself!

Yup. General Motors. The same company that Toyota laughed at about two years ago when they announced development on the Chevrolet Volt as being impossible. Hybrid technology has hit a plateau on development right now. You have the BAS technology, the synergy drive platform, and the two-mode platform.

BAS Technology: Simplistic, and cheaper than its counterparts. Provides only a 10% to 20% advantage over a similar 4-cylinder model, so the impact from the simplicity is less. Think anemic 4-cylinder fuel economy out of an engine that offers some grumpf.

Synergy Drive: Provides significant improvement and can be used two ways, as a fuel economizing system or a performance enhancement. More expensive and technically complicated than BAS. In applications like midsize SUVs the benefits of fuel savings start to melt away. Think Honda CRX back in the day fuel economy out of a five passenger car.

Two-Mode: Capable of bringing Synergy drive performance to large SUVs and trucks, while not compromising on available power for towing and carrying cargo or off-road applications (unlike Synergy) and providing a significant boost in fuel economy. Most complicated system of the three with impact to engine, transmission and driveline systems and thus the most expensive. Limited availability and hard to get "need" buyers to adopt. Think minivan fuel economy with more towing capacity out of a Chevy Suburban or Toyota Sequoia.

HOWEVER, when you look at the innovation that is coming in the next 24 months, there isn't a huge leap here. Toyota will offer a plugin/hybrid vehicle but as a lease vehicle only (Chevrolet EV1 anyone). General Motors will offer a plug-in Saturn VUE that you can own, but it still uses the BAS system for charging. Honda is expanding its line and word is the tweaks they are making will put the Civic around 50 MPG city, something no vehicle in production can achieve without modification.

But the Chevrolet Volt, due to hit showrooms in late 2010 as a 2011 model is something totally different. This operates like a cruise ship of locomotive engine. First, there is the plug-in component that will give the owner a 40 mile range in ANY weather conditions, unlike the EV1 which was only viable in warm regions like Southern California and Arizona, and lost range with reduction in temperature and amount of load on the system. Unlike BAS, Synergy, or Two-Mode, the electrical system is through the speed and performance range, not at low speeds. For the average American, for about $1 a day at 15 cents per kilowatt hour, they could in theory never put a drop of gas into the Volt. Once that range is exhausted, a one liter engine that can on diesel, E85, OR gasoline, which is in itself radical, will kick in. The engine does not drive the drive wheels, but charges the electrical system that runs the vehicle. This is very similar to how a cruise ship operates, diesel engines create electricity that run the propulsion and thruster systems. Using this system the Volt is projected to get 150 MPG.

Chevrolet has also committed the following to the Volt:

1) Seats five
2) Range of 640 miles when you combine electric and fuel
3) Sticker price under $30,000
4) You can BUY it
5) First year production in excess of 100,000 units

Ready to dismiss it yet as all hype? Think again. A123 Systems of Cambridge, Massachusetts is developing the battery systems, the one critical component to bring this to life. A123 is selling conversion kits right now, using their technology, to convert a Prius hybrid into a 100 MPG vehicle with plug-in capability. Translation, A123 has solved the biggest engineering challenge when it comes to Lithium Ion batteries, heat. Now they need to solve economy of scale, which they are doing with this pilot. Right now in my backyard there are 13 test mules on the road being tested by King County, with the research going back to General Motors and A123. Sorry folks A123 isn't public yet.

Toyota has their own project, they are working with MEI (Panasonic) for their lithium-ion technology. But the Volt is gaining momentum.

This is a well written story by MSNBC, that points out that the rest of the Detroit big three aren't thinking as well. Ford appears to be going in another direction, simply creating ultra fuel efficient vehicles in Europe to bring to the states, a good idea in my book. Chrysler the story points out, is totally lost when it comes to fuel economy, other than to subsidize gas purchases. Honestly, if someone came to me and said, I need to tow a trailer for work/family and I need 6,000 pounds of capacity, what should I buy, I'd say go get a Dodge and enjoy the $2.99 gas for the next three years, just don't go over 12K miles in the process.

It is good to see a US auto company not only turning the corner, but on the brink of becoming a global leader in technology again.