The battery that will power the Chevrolet Volt weighs approximately 400 pounds and, stood on end, reaches a height of six feet. The $10,000-plus, T-shaped monolith contains 300 individual three-volt lithium-ion cells, bundled together in groups of three, then wired in series and kept from overheating by an elaborate liquid cooling mechanism. A computerized monitoring system inside the battery pack conducts this little electrical orchestra, coordinating the actions of the individual cells, balancing voltage, watching, above all, for any indication that a cell might be failing, shorting out, or otherwise threatening the stability of the system. This battery, one of the most advanced pieces of electrical storage equipment ever engineered, can propel the 3,520-pound Volt 40 miles before it runs out of energy.
And so can a gallon of gas.
Jon Lauckner would very much like for you to understand this. Lauckner is vice president for global program management at General Motors, a man with a self-professed strong bias toward the electrification of the automobile, and yet he wants you to realize exactly what electric cars are up against -- to recognize that in the harsh, unsentimental view of an engineer, batteries, no matter how advanced they may seem, make gasoline look like a bargain.
"You," in this scenario, are the members of a small group of journalists who have mingled their way through a GM cocktail reception in suburban Detroit in April to gather around Lauckner; tomorrow the group will tour the Warren, Michigan, facilities where the Volt is being developed, for a demonstration designed to prove that the plug-in hybrid's long march to legitimacy is actively under way. It's all very convivial, but Lauckner seems to be anticipating an ambush, nursing the certainty that someone will soon bring up the EV1, the electric car that GM launched in 1996 and, a few years later, infamously hauled en masse to the Arizona desert to be demolished. These days, as GM attempts to convince a skeptical world that its Volt is not, in fact, vaporware, the EV1 is a bit of a sore subject.
So before anyone can say a thing, Lauckner launches a preemptive strike, placing the blame for the EV1's death squarely on the battery's inability to compete with the internal combustion engine. "To anyone who thinks there was a conspiracy between GM and the oil companies to kill off the EV1," he announces, gesturing toward open air, as if a life-size model of the Volt's all-important battery pack stands beside him, "I say, this 400-pound battery" -- at least 600 pounds lighter than the beast that powered the EV1 -- "is still the equivalent of only a gallon of gasoline."Make no mistake, you will be able to buy some form of electrified car soon. It's inevitable. Rising oil prices, melting polar ice caps, petroleum-fueled geopolitical insecurity -- all send a pretty unambiguous message about fossil fuels: We need to stop using them. Americans burn 390 million gallons of gasoline every day, each of which pumps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. And right now, the alternative fuel with the best chance of rapidly shrinking that number is electricity. A hydrogen economy still might as well be science fiction. Corn-based ethanol may be driving up food prices worldwide, and it does nothing to lower carbon emissions. Electricity, on the other hand, is piped into every home in the country. It's cheap compared with gasoline. It can come from almost any source -- natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind. And a car fueled by even coal-derived electricity (the source of nearly half of America's power) will generate only 0.7 pound of CO2 per mile for every pound of CO2 emitted by a conventional gasoline-powered car.
Today's hybrid cars, like the Prius, are a small step toward the electrification of the automobile, but the emphasis is on small. Hybrids are, fundamentally, gas-powered cars that run on batteries for extremely short periods. Plug-in hybrids, however, or as GM calls the Volt, "extended-range electric vehicles" -- cars with large batteries that charge straight from the grid and run the majority of the time on electricity, rather than gasoline -- pass a critical threshold beyond which electricity, not oil, is the primary transportation fuel.
Consider the potential benefits. According to the Department of Transportation, 78 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day, so most Volt drivers, for instance, would never use the car's gas-powered backup engine on a normal driving day. Improve the battery technology enough to squeeze out an extra 10 miles per charge, and the numbers get even more impressive; a plug-in hybrid sedan with an all-electric range of 50 miles should average 150 mpg overall.
A study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that even in a relatively pessimistic scenario, in which over the next four decades electricity continues to come mainly from coal, and plug-in hybrids make modest gains in market share, at least 3.4 billion metric tons of carbon emissions could be cut by 2050. To put that in perspective, the average midsize 30mpg car produces a little less than four tons of CO2 every year.
It will take a lot of cars to make that happen, but most automakers have begun at least making gestures at an electrified future. Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Mini, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Hyundai and Volkswagen have all announced that they will release some sort of plug-in or electric car in the next two to three years, if only in limited batches. The boutique automaker Tesla has already begun delivering its pricey pure-electric sports cars, and other small operations, such as Fisker Coachbuild, have started taking orders for their own electrified automobiles.
Still, we're far from having a battery that's cheap, safe and energy-dense enough for electricity to displace gasoline completely. The Volt's monstrous battery is a primitive ancestor of what automakers ultimately have in mind. Yet GM, the company whose reputation was all but ruined by the EV1 debacle, the overextended corporation that lost more than $15 billion in the second quarter of this year and could simply run out of cash by 2010, is essentially staking its continued existence on the Volt. It's betting that the 400-pound battery it's developing right now will eventually lead to the ubiquitous electric car of tomorrow.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.