I just drove the car with the most expensive component that General Motors has ever put in a production vehicle.
No, the component was not the 638-horsepower LS9 V-8 engine in the top of the line Corvette. The most expensive piece of hardware is the battery in the Chevy Volt.
The GM electrical engineer who drove along with me would not put a dollar amount on the battery but he did assure me it cost more than the hottest Corvette mill. It just goes to show how difficult and expensive it is to pack enough power into a battery to drive a car. Oh, by the way, after 26 miles of all-electric driving in chilly Detroit the gas engine kicked in to put some more juice into the very costly array of lithium-ion under the floor.
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"It's not the cost of materials," he said, "There's lots of lithium around. It's the R&D costs, all the engineers and all development over the years."
And obviously the R&D isn't over yet. GM has recently licensed some new battery-electrode materials developed at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy Lab. It realizes that it has to get battery costs way down if electric vehicles are to have a chance of becoming affordable and popular.
That being said, this new Chevy Volt is a refined and comfortable car. Many times when a new car is rushed to market it comes out of the gate a little rough around the edges. Not the Volt. It doesn't look like much but it is comfortable and quiet and smooth and everything works. Of course, it should in a car with a $41,000 (U.S.) price tag. My engineer buddy, who looked a little the worse for wear after a long and gruelling year of effort on the car, said, "You would not believe how significant are the improvements we've made in the last 12 months."
I booted it out of Detroit on I-94 accelerating fast to (at least) the speed limit. The accelerator pedal felt just right, the steering and handling was excellent and the quiet and comfort first-class. To me, it felt like a Mercedes E-Class - solid, smooth and heavy; no wonder, with a couple of hundred kilograms of battery under the floor. The whole car weighs in at nearly 1,600 kilograms (3,500 pounds). The climate control worked perfectly, the power windows and seats were fine - you can turn this stuff off if you want to save some battery power to go farther electric-only. Not me, I was driving it like a real car.
So what are they going to do to get better cheaper batteries? The U.S. Department of Energy is spending a bundle on advanced research projects with the intention of producing batteries that store three times as much energy as the Volt's lithium-ion car batteries. The technology that GM got in on involves mixed-metal oxides. They are working on cathode material that consists of lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt. It will likely take years to develop it and validate it so you can also expect the new batteries to also cost more than Corvette engines at least until they're mass-produced.
The Volt has been piling up the awards, which now include the 2011 North American Car of the Year announced at the Detroit auto show. For my money, I'd take the less-expensive, all-electric Nissan Leaf, but the safety blanket of a gas engine to get you home when the battery goes dead has proven popular with journalists and jurors. I say use better trip planning.
GM skates around the question of when or if it will ever make a dime on the Volt but one thing is certain. Getting this first-of-its-kind car out the door in such a refined and finished form is a great morale booster for back-from-bankrupt GM. The engineers and everybody else on this project really worked their hearts out. That might be what's most significant about the Volt of all.