By on March 17, 2009

As rumors filter in about GM’s Volt battery program, the faithful must be experiencing a certain amount of restless discomfort. After all, it’s not like this couldn’t be seen coming. Let’s just say that when I asked at SEMA last October the guys from A123 Systems (then bidding on the project) about the Volt battery development program, they took full advantage of the fact that SEC silent periods don’t forbid eye-rolling. Though non-verbal communication can (and in this case, did) speak volumes, we like to get our facts in writing. Which, thanks to the truth-proof wall surrounding the Volt’s development, usually means going through GM’s PR-exercise interviews with reliable Volt boosters and mining them for some kind of meaning. And hey, there’s an interview at Volt cheerleader HQ gm-volt.com which suggests that the Volt’s battery development is being rushed. And engineers are complaining to blogs? Fancy that!

GM-volt.com’s Lyle Dennis sat down with GM’s head Volt honcho Frank Weber for a sanitized-for-your-protection update on General’s moon-shot gambit. So what is happening right now, according to Weber?

We have been using the winter for winter tests . . . Now what’s happening is the true development work that you say OK this is the temperature of the battery, and this is the temperature of the system, and this is what happens when you are plugged in, etc. There are parameters that we call calibration, you have the basic software functionality on those cars defined, and then we start to calibrate it looking at the temperature and when to we start it, what is the true power of the battery at a certain temperature, etc.”

Any of this sounding intelligible or reassuring yet? This is supposed to be GM’s chance to thrill the credulous faithful, and the best Weber can come up with is “start to calibrate?” Don’t worry, it gets worse.

“What you know is what the behavior is for the cars that we are testing, and then you make an assumption for how a component will behave over time and how it will behave under the same situation in several years.  This is what we call accelerated testing. This gives you some indication of durability. The piece that is tricky and interesting about the battery is to do a really accurate extrapolation of the true behavior. For a mechanical part this is very simple. For a mechanical part you can replicate its lifetime and find out when it will break. The battery is electrochemical and its more difficult to make those extrapolations. This is part of the learning we have to do, battery learning between the battery supplier LG and us. By the way this is still the element of risk. This is also why we are unable to get the car out any sooner. It is those things that have to be developed now with the components that are representative of the production vehicle.  There is no way to do this any faster.”

If GM would just admit that the “late 2010” launch date is toast, this wouldn’t even qualify as spin. But then we don’t exactly live in a world where you can just say “it’s complicated, we don’t know when it will actually be done, now where’s my NSFWing bailout” is it? Or is it? I digress.

In a separate post, Lyle Dennis predicts public test drives this summer, putting faith first in spite of more damningly ambiguous talk, this time from GM’s John Lauckner. Saying “we need an experience where people say ‘Wow’ this is really something special,” Lauckner reveals that GM has “laid out all of the concepts that we want to use and written a lot of the preliminary code,” for the Volt’s “software-driven” driving experience.” Concepts. Preliminary. Wow. Lauckner continues:

“I would say that conceptually we’re most of the way there if not all of the way there, but there’s a lot of work to be done still to make sure that the whole thing operates seamlessly. [GM has to] love this thing a little bit to make sure that you not only get it that it actually works but you get it working in such a way that its completely intuitive. We need the time with the car and we need the time over a wide variety of conditions to simulate certain things, so that we can see just exactly how the car is going to behave and what sort of information the driver is going to get to make sure everything works in as seamless a way as we can possibly make it.”

Love your own product? Really? You’re only going to be asking $40 grand for the thing. And though both executives note its importance, time is the one thing GM doesn’t have. Weber reveals that the engineering freeze on the first true Volt prototypes or integration cars will occur “within days,” and that these integration models will be built and tested sometime later this year. If GM could simply let its executives just say what they hint at (conceptual, preliminary, this thing takes time) and let the “late 2010” date slip, their troops on the ground might not be grousing that the battery system is an “epic fail.” Instead it’s being rammed through and damn the torpedoes. This won’t end well.

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34 Comments on “Editorial: Between The Lines: GM’s Volt Development Spin Cycle...”


  • avatar
    Jared

    Actually, it sounds to me like she was being pretty straightforward, describing the engineering program that was required. Your whole breathless GOTCHA reporting on this is getting rather old. Particularly since you aren’t providing anything that is verifiable that supports your assertions.

    How about you stop the “VOLT WILL FAIL!” celebratory articles until you actually have something worth reporting?

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Yup. Very straight forward about the engineering and development program. Unfortunately, for a 2010 launch that should have all been done by now.

    “I would say that conceptually we’re most of the way there if not all of the way there, but there’s a lot of work to be done still to make sure that the whole thing operates seamlessly”.

    I would say that conceptually I’m most of the way there to making love with Heidi Fleiss if not all of the way there, but there’s a lot of work to be done still to make sure that the whole affair happens seamlessly.

    One of the rules you eventually learn in product development is that between the concept and the introduction lies the void. And – when there’s an undeveloped technology upon which the whole project depends – that void is of unpredictable size.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    “How about you stop the “VOLT WILL FAIL!” celebratory articles until you actually have something worth reporting?”

    How about GM actually delivers on promises made?

    How about GM actually stops their bullshit spin?

    How about GM actually delivers the Volt, on time, and under budget? For the promised retail price? With the promised capacity and range? Before the end of 2010?

    How about GM actually makes something worth remembering?

    How about GM actually makes a profit?

    How about GM actually makes it, without going bankrupt?

    Perhaps once in a blue moon?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Heidi Fleiss?

    The Hollywood Madam?

    I hope you meant Heidi Klum, the super-model.

  • avatar
    AWD-03

    The quotes all sound like someone who doesn’t want to be pinned down. I know I sound like this when I have to answer questions without all the facts. You throw in truth and ambiguities that are not refutable. So when the talk is over the other person feels like you answered the question whether they understood it or not. When it gets written down though, it really becomes transparent that nothing was said.

  • avatar
    midelectric

    Maybe this has been mentioned before but I think it’s worth repeating-so I will.

    GM had a workable and well characterized battery technology with Ovonic/ECD/Cobasys NiMH that was used in the EV-1. By the time that car was canned, ECD had Gen3 NiMH batteries that had improved energy density and thermal management. They even had a factory built to mass produce the things that never went online. These batteries would be perfectly suited for the Volt.

    GM sold off their interest to Chevron/Texaco and Cobasys’ performance since then shows. Their hybrid packs are no where as near reliable as the Panasonic ones Toyota and Ford use.

  • avatar
    mtypex

    [Ingvar is the new Buickman?]

    Of course, the answer is never.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    I’m just sick and tired of all the bullshit…

    “Show me the money!” is all I have to say…

  • avatar
    Orian

    midelectric,

    That would be great if they were using those batteries but they aren’t. They’ve thrown all their R&D into lithium ion so far and that’s where the issues are at.

  • avatar
    revhigh

    My prediction is that there will never be one Volt legitimately sold to a consumer … EVER. By the time GM’s incompetent management get through with it, it will be 2015, it still won’t work, and it’ll cost 100K+, same as what ultimately will happen to Tesla.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Technical issues aside, there was a lot of talk in there about the customer experience.

    That seamlessness they are looking for will be elusive with such a complex vehicle.

    Here are some seams:
    1. $40k cost
    2. Batteries non-functional in cold weather.
    3. Substantially lower performance in gas-only mode.
    4. Chronic gas-only mode since customer don’t plug them in.
    5. Ball-and-chain feeling since the car must be plugged in overnight.
    6. Where do I buy 21″ Volt tires?

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    All the EV and plug-in suggestions on the table all suffer from the same problem, serious depletion of battery capacity after a short period of use — and a lot of trouble figuring out how to pass that cost on to the customers, in a way that still makes the car attractive.

    Does not compute.

    Maybe what The Better Place is up to is a possibility, but what are the chances that manufacturers will cooperate on a standardized battery pack?

    A standard pack will have to be mandated, by law, and that’s going to be a hurdle and a half.

    Until there’s a genuinely proven battery breakthrough, EVs are for short hauls, lighter loads and community service – as well as for effing around in a Tesla if you don’t care about having to replace your battery pack frequently.

  • avatar
    eamiller

    Of course, Toyota has enough foresight in the 90s to realize that there are things about hybrids you just can’t use accelerated testing on.

    The original Prius was released in 1997 in Japan only. These vehicles were used as testbeds for the batteries and software based on real-world usage.

    In typical GM fashion, they are late to the party and rushing to catch up, which has worked so well for them up to this point.

  • avatar
    Eric Bryant

    Calibration this late in the design cycle is really a non-issue. In any normal program, it happens pretty late in the program (reality being a distant cousin of theory), and certainly in this case it’ll be happening through and after launch. That’s not what scares me about this program – as an engineer, I’m far more worried about the hardware, because that’s far more problematic to correct after the tooling is built, the car is assembled, and the customer sale is conducted (each of those steps bringing more and more cost to address a given problem).

    Actually, scratch the above – I’m scared of the architecture. If that ain’t right, then the details don’t matter.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    I’m hoping that expanded tax credits defray the initial cost of ownership.

  • avatar
    smarts

    Since when is calibration a problem toward the end of product development? What about shift points in a standard transmission? Suspension? Granted, the battery is sufficiently new, but they’ve certainly built the expectation that the battery is going to be a problem. I think that this is being blown way out of proportion.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    I think Jared nailed it. The interviewee was a senior manager who needed to make the statement that development was continuing, and that developing a battery for a 10 year life was quite tricky inside any feasible program timing. Explaining engineering to clueless journos is hard enough at the best of times.

    An example is the disparagement of the use of the word ‘calibration’. Calibrating is the process of fine tuning the constants used to run the strategy in the computer – essentially you have around one hundred look-up tables, and the development engineers enter values into those. That will continue right up until the EEPROMS are burned for the Job 1 build, which could be as little as 2 weeks from Job 1. Writing the code for the strategy will have started long ago.

  • avatar
    Targa Florio

    I don’t understand the VOLT. Why not make it a direct injection, turbo diesel? You could build such a car that gets 70MPG and it would be fun to drive. VW is already selling it in Europe.

    Using electricity to power cars doesn’t mean NO POLLUTION, it’s just DEFERRED POLLUTION (Coal burning power plant).

    The VOLT wouldn’t cut the dependence on fossil burning fuel since it still has a gasoline engine.

    On the other hand, you can run the diesel engine on bio-diesel.

    Just make it a clean diesel and be done with it already. No upgrade to the power grid needed, no upgrade to gas stations needed. Just keep it simple.

  • avatar
    car_czar

    The volt probably isn’t a diesel engine, because (a) they’re heavier than gasoline engines, (b) the US emissions standards for diesels are difficult and expensive to meet and (c) they make little financial sense in the US, where diesel fuel is not subsidized by the government as it is in Europe.

    Biodiesel would require huge amounts of space to grow crops in sufficient quantity to be the nation’s supply of transportation energy. Think along the lines of all arable land in the country. Other crops are under study that would bring it down to the size of a medium sized state.

  • avatar

    Love your own product? Really?

    Folks at Apple understand that concept. Lauckner’s remarks that “we need an experience where people say ‘Wow’ this is really something special,” is at least talking the talk.

    You have to have a passion for your product and want to make it better than good enough.

    Getting an EV to act the way consumers expect a car to act in all situations, along with power control and battery management is a software intensive process. Fine tuning the software and making things “insanely great” as Steve Jobs put it, is going to be the difference between a double and a home run.

    Preliminary. Wow.

    I think you’re underestimating how sophisticated the “preliminary code” is.

  • avatar
    seabrjim

    If I were in the market for an EV {and I’m not} I would be scared to death to buy this car. I mean, when it comes out in 2014. How about GM shuts up until THEY have something worth reporting. Like when the camaro hits the dealerships. Oh, still not available yet?

  • avatar
    tesla deathwatcher

    I’m with those who say this criticism is premature. The Volt development process sounds like any product that is being developed. That’s why development takes time. You do some things. Problems come up. You solve them, or bypass them. And move on.

    Will the Volt be everything GM says it will be? No. Will it be done on time? No. But that’s all normal. Everything takes longer, does not work as well, and costs more than you think.

    That said, buyers beware. Any new design like this will need some time for the bugs to be worked out.

    I remember visiting my father in Boston in the winter of 1983. He had a diesel VW Rabbit. We all got in the car on a cold and snowy Christmas morning to go to church. We got halfway there and the car stopped. Couldn’t get it going. And couldn’t figure out why.

    A good Samaritan gave us a ride into church, and someone else gave us a ride home. The next day in better weather we went to look at the car, and it started right up. Turned out the diesel fuel had gelled up in the cold.

    Look for many problems like that to plague the Volts for a few years to come.

  • avatar
    amca

    Exactly, the criticism is premature.

    They’re doing a car that no one’s done before, and the interesting part is that they’re trying to do it to a standard we all know already: the plain old, totally reliable modern car.

    You think Fiskar or Tesla is going to produce anything anywhere near as well sorted as a Volt? I doubt it. They don’t know how. But GM does.

    But this is totally new territory, so yeah, there are going to be plenty of question marks out there. Strangely, though, I’ve got confidence that GM’s got the talent — and the money, let’s hope — to pull it off.

    Face it, it hasn’t been the engineers who’ve brought GM to its current sorry state.

  • avatar
    tankd0g

    My prediction is that they’ll make a 2-mode hybrid Camaro, heavy on the hybrid, call it the Volt and hope no one notices.

    People tend to forget the fact that this was basically the idea of a crazy old man on a stage somewhere who then tasked engineers to build it, despite the fact that serial hybrids can’t deliver what he promised. Laws of thermal dynamics and conservation of energy and all that….

  • avatar
    Michal

    Targa Florio : Using electricity to power cars doesn’t mean NO POLLUTION, it’s just DEFERRED POLLUTION (Coal burning power plant).

    I don’t understand the reasoning. You’re deliberately assuming the worst case scenario. What if the consumer who purchases a Volt gets their power from one of the following: hydro, solar, wind, or in a pinch, nuclear?

    Yes, coal is the major source of electricity, but it’s not the only source for everyone.

  • avatar
    tankd0g

    Michal :

    Worst case scenario? Worst case scenario hasn’t even begun yet. If half of the electricity int he USA is now generated by coal, what do you think is going to happen when demand increases 30%? Do you think they’ll dam up more rivers or burn more coal?

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Will the Volt be everything GM says it will be? No. Will it be done on time? No. But that’s all normal. Everything takes longer, does not work as well, and costs more than you think.

    That said, buyers beware. Any new design like this will need some time for the bugs to be worked out.

    Are you telling me that I shouldn’t buy a Volt at $40,000 for the first few years of its manufacture, but should instead buy a product that has been been in production for some years and which has gotten price reductions from economies of scale?

    Sure sounds like you’re telling me to buy a Prius or a Honda Hybrid for half the price.

    Guys – you can’t view this as an interesting engineering project on the part of GM. You have to view it in terms of its viability as a consumer product.

    My sister is probably a prospective candidate for an electric car/hybrid. She’s a teacher who lives in an urban area with a very short commute. She wants to buy a “Green” car. She drove a Lexus hybrid SUV and loved it. Finally, she’s due for a new car in a couple of years.

    Now:
    Let’s compare the Prius and the Volt as potential purchases for her:

    1. The Prius is $25K and or available used. New things to learn to drive a Prius: none. You just put gas in it, just like your other cars. Range limitations: none. Cold or hot weather concerns: none. Hassle factor: No more than a regular car. Finally, the Prius has a history of reliability and reasonable resale value.

    2. The Volt is $40K and (obviously) not available used or discounted. New things to learn to drive a Volt: Plan the distance of your trip. Range limitations: Yup. You can’t really reasonably drive this car to Cleveland to vist relatives. Cold or hot weather limitations: Yeah. You have to factor AC or heat use into your range consideration. Hassle factor: Yeah. Even if it’s raining or snowing or midnight after a party, you have to get out and find a place to plug the damn thing in. You have to stow the wet dirty plug in cord. Don’t forget.

    I just don’t see it.

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    EDF and Toyota announce large-scale demonstration of Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles in Strasbourg, France

    EDF and Toyota today announced a major step forward in their joint road-trials in France, involving Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHVs) and an innovative charging infrastructure. About one hundred units of a next generation PHV equipped with lithium-ion batteries will be leased to selected companies and partners in the Strasbourg area starting from the end of 2009, for a duration of three years. This project has received financial support via the Research Fund managed by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency ADEME, following a call for projects on low-emitting vehicles

    PDF:

    http://www.toyota-media.com/ems_corp_v1_glen/Images/PHV%20Strasbourg%20announcement_tcm318-877323.pdf

  • avatar
    Lokki

    EDF and Toyota today announced a major step forward in their joint road-trials in France, involving Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHVs) and an innovative charging infrastructure

    ’nuff said.

  • avatar
    nonce

    I just don’t see it.

    It doesn’t matter what you see.

    I don’t buy new cars. I think they don’t make sense, and I can pull out the charts to show you why. Yet, millions and millions of new cars are sold every year.

    I wouldn’t buy a first-year Volt, but I wouldn’t buy a first-year any car. Yet, cars still manage to get sold in their first year.

    I realize that other people have different priorities than me.

    If the Volt performs roughly as advertised and isn’t beaten to market by another EREV, they will have no problem selling 10,000 of them in the first year.

    Things that you don’t understand happen every single day.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Lokki:”2. The Volt is $40K and (obviously) not available used or discounted. New things to learn to drive a Volt: Plan the distance of your trip. Range limitations: Yup. You can’t really reasonably drive this car to Cleveland to vist relatives. Cold or hot weather limitations: Yeah. You have to factor AC or heat use into your range consideration. Hassle factor: Yeah. Even if it’s raining or snowing or midnight after a party, you have to get out and find a place to plug the damn thing in. You have to stow the wet dirty plug in cord. Don’t forget.

    I just don’t see it.”

    You are treating the Volt as an EV. All she has to do is put gas in the tank and it’ll drive pretty much like a Prius. Not especially efficintly as she’s carting a huge battery around, admittedly.

  • avatar
    John_K

    Just declare BK, lay off all the UAW scum, and move on.

    These lies are so sad.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    As I understand if they had been able to put the niMH batteries in it (as in if they hadn’t sold them to Chevron…) then we’d have a plugin with twice the range or more…

    Something about the Lithium battery not tolerating being used flat b/c it damages the battery. Consequently they put in a big battery, allow the car management systems to use a little of it and then start the engine to do the big work. With a NiMH battery they could have used a battery the same size and gotten some serious miles out of it with proven durability…

  • avatar
    WopOnTour

    I love revisiting old TTAC articles such as this one, just as a reminder of how opinionated and wrong these self-appointed automotive “experts” can be. On just about just about anything to do with the industry.
    Case in point, this obvious tool Mr. Edward Niedermeyer who apparently fancies himself as an arm-chair CEO and chief engineer.
    Here’s a nickel Mr. Niedermeyer, buy a clue!
    The Volt remains an unequivocal success- no thanks to you!

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