On a beautiful spring day last week, I was lucky enough to meet Micky Bly, a 1990 Georgia Tech BSME graduate, and the man in charge of the Chevy Volt. His General Motors business card reads, somewhat splendiferously, “Group Global Executive Director, Global Electrical Systems, Infotainment, and Electrification.” He was the featured speaker at the ninth annual Georgia Tech Auto Show… where I used to exhibit my beloved Panoz Esperante. This year, we went to the green extreme by exhibiting our brand-new Chevy Volt (discussed in my earlier blog post here).
First, we found him exploring the electric car corner of the auto show: two Volts, one Tesla Roadster, an original Honda Insight, four Nissan Leafs (Leaves?), and a Prius that has been hacked into becoming a plug-in hybrid. He posed next to Cissa’s brand-new Volt, and answered a few questions that we had (details below).
Later, we went indoors, where Bly spoke about the Chevy Volt. Micky is an experienced and accomplished speaker. He spoke for over half an hour with no notes, and I suspect he would have done just as well without his PowerPoint slides also.
Some possibly-incoherent notes typed on my iPhone while Bly was talking:
Bly leads a team of 3000 engineers; 1800 in Michigan, and 1200 around the world. The Volt, and its follow-ons, are a major investment by General Motors, and he claims that electrification is “redefining the automobile.” This isn’t a skunkworks or hobby project. This is GM’s major bet on transitioning to building cars that are not 100% dependent on petroleum.
Gasoline-powered cars have made a lot of progress. According to Bly, in the last 30 years, tailpipe emissions have been reduced by 99%, mileage has increased by 130%, and safety has increased by 70%. The average car today has 30 onboard computers to optimize performance. But there are political, technical, and economical reasons to move away from internal combustion and mechanical systems to electric and electronic systems. World petroleum demand would require bringing six new Saudi Arabias online by 2030, which isn’t going to happen.
General Motors is a big believer in the Volt architecture. Bly made a big point of emphasizing that the Volt is not a “plug-in hybrid”… it is an “extended range electric vehicle” (EREV). (Please have any religious wars over terminology elsewhere, not in my Comments section.)
Batteries are lousy. And “gasoline is an amazing substance.” The very complex, very heavy, very expensive, very state-of-the-art battery underpinning the Volt stores the equivalent energy of one gallon of gasoline. General Motors evaluated 155 suppliers and tested 60 different battery formulations before settling on their partnership with LG Chem. In his words, “There are liars, damned liars, and battery suppliers.”
To bring the battery pack into production, GM built the largest battery testing facility in the world. He showed some great pictures (which I didn’t capture well with my phone) of batteries being tested on fire, underwater, and when being rammed into concrete barriers. The Volt batteries aren’t perfect, but he claims they’re the best ever placed into a production vehicle.
He tackled the NHTSA issue head on. “255,000 cars catch on fire in this country every year. One Volt, after being intentionally crashed and then left for three weeks without following published safety procedures, caught on fire. If you had been trapped in that car for three weeks, you’d have died of starvation or thirst a long time before you were threatened by fire!”
The 1.4 liter engine in the Volt eliminates range anxiety. He used the example of driving 1300 miles from Detroit to West Palm Beach. In a Corvette (he has seen not only the next Corvette, but the next next Corvette!), it would take two days, with an overnight stop in North Carolina. In a Chevrolet Volt, it would take the same two days… the first 40 miles on battery power, then the remaining 1260 miles on gasoline. In a Nissan Leaf (or, to be fair, a Chevy Spark) pure electric, it would take about 18 days! “With the Volt, there’s no need to change your life around your car.”
He finished by saying “We’ve had some really crappy TV commercials” but that the current owners of Volts were almost bizarrely happy with their cars. In his summary, he stated without hesitation that “In ten years, all of us will be driving some sort of electrified vehicle: hybrid, EREV, or pure electric. All of us.”
Questions & Answers
Bly then went on to handle a surprisingly lengthy, detailed, and wide-ranging Q&A session. He obviously already knew about the March sales figures (which turned out to be a record-setting 2289 Volts sold, double February sales and nearly four times January’s disappointing 609 units), but he couldn’t talk about it before the formal announcement two days later.
Why doesn’t GM have a small diesel engine?
To meet current emissions requirements, you need a chemical factory strapped to the back of a diesel engine. Emission control adds about $10,000 to the cost of a diesel vehicle, and it just doesn’t make economic sense for small cars.
Will the Volt architecture be extended to other vehicles?
Absolutely. The Cadillac ELR is nearing production. GM has already shown a minivan based on the Volt platform in Shanghai, and other models are in development. But you probably won’t see a full-size SUV built on the Volt EREV architecture anytime soon. Doubling the battery pack would cost too much.
How much will it cost to replace the Volt battery in 10 years?
We don’t know. (Major points for honesty!) But lithium cells are driving down the cost curve much faster than we thought possible. In 2008, Li-Ion energy densities were $1000/kilowatt-hour. Now, it’s $500/kWh. And the Department of Energy projects $200/kWh by the year 2020. So, in ten years, your current Volt’s battery will be replaced with something better and 80% cheaper.
What happens when you put a Volt into a landfill?
GM is already working with “second responders” (a new phrase for me) to prepare for scrapping volts. One of the leaders is the unfortunately-named Toxco. (Seriously. Would you name a company “Toxco”?)
What’s it like to travel with a Volt?
Hotels are already advertising to attract EV owners with conveniently-placed electrical outlets for charging. A few are installing 240V “Level II” chargers. In response to a follow-up question, GM has no interest in subsidizing those Level II chargers. Micky believes in a free market, and figures that market demand will convince the hotels to do this themselves. “GM makes cars.”
Won’t the gasoline in the tank get stale?
The Volt went back to a sealed steel gas tank to prevent vapor escape of volatile fractions. Even if your driving stays within electric capacity, the engine will start every six weeks just for maintenance purposes, to burn off some gasoline and to keep the parts lubricated.
Does the Volt qualify for single-occupancy use of HOV lanes?
Yes. Indeed, it just got qualified for HOV use in California… and the Prius just got kicked out!
Why isn’t the body built of carbon fiber?
Carbon fiber works well for race cars. For a production car, it’s still terribly expensive. And the nature of carbon-fiber layup leaves you with 30-40 percent scrap material that cannot be recycled. Waiting for a breakthrough, but for now, they’re minimizing weight with metal, not composites.
What about the Better Place model of swapping fully-charged batteries?
It won’t work. “Shah Agassi (CEO and founder) is a friend of mine” and the idea sounds good, but it’s impossible to scale. The cellphone industry sells 500 million batteries a year, and no one has figured out how to make those interchangeable yet. Cars will take longer. The logistics and economics of warehouse-sized battery-swap facilities add up to a business case that just doesn’t work. (Smugly, I note that I came to exactly this conclusion in my blog post in October 2010.)
What ever happened to the hydrogen fuel-cell “skateboard” design?
The HyWire concept has a lot of promise, and Micky’s team “looked at it for the Volt, but went a different direction.” It’s great for weight distribution, not so great in crash protection. He’s very skeptical about hydrogen in an automotive environment. “We will not be shipping a car that uses cryogenic fuel.” (Ahem. More smugness here and here.)
Is there enough lithium in the world to build all these batteries?
Lithium is being be mined in Bolivia, Brazil, Afghanistan, Russia, China, India, North Dakota, and Canada. There are known supplies equivalent to building 50 million Volts… and we hope to have that problem! Those taking lithium medication have no need to worry.
Will all these plug-in cars shut down the national electric grid?
The grid can currently handle 100 million plug-in vehicles. Again, GM hopes to have that problem!
In sidebar conversations before and after the presentation, I learned a few more bits and pieces to look forward to in future Volts.
My biggest disappointment with the car is the lack of a sunroof. Bly said “Not in the 2012 models.” The clear implication is that we’ll see it in 2013 models…
Also in 2013, Volts will have body-colored roofs as an option instead of the all-black roofs today.
The USB port will provide a very slow trickle charge to an iPad, but not enough for the iPad to admit it, so the display says “Not Charging.” Later this summer, there’s a fix coming so that new cars will double their output current. Existing Volts will be able to get the new circuit as an upgrade.
He understands the frustration with requiring the stereo to be turned on if you want the nav, climate, or energy status displays. A fix is coming. Cissa also demonstrated how, with long fingernails, it’s necessary to rest your hand along the top row of buttons to get the angle right, so she’s always pressing “Climate” or “Auto” by accident. He agreed that there needs to be some sort of shelf or lip there.
We talked about having the center screen be a full AirPlay client (so that iPhones or iPads can mirror their display over Wi-Fi). They’ve made it work in the lab, but have serious concerns about driver distraction and safety.
Turns out that after pressing the remote “Unlock” button twice (to unlock first the driver’s door, then all doors), holding down the button lowers all the windows. Nice for cooling off the car on a hot day. It’s probably in the manual, but I didn’t know it.
No way that I would have known this, but the first 1000 Volts have slightly different screen displays, including showing the VIN number on screen.
Micky Bly is clearly a helluva, helluva, helluva engineer, and I’m glad that Georgia Tech can claim him! I appreciate all the time he spent on campus, and his endless patience and good humor in answering our questions.