Jonathan Rauch has written an article for The Atlantic about the development of GM's Chevy Volt pluggable hybrid entitled Electro-Shock Therapy. In the article he talks to GM electrical engineer Lance Turner who claimed in December 2007 that the battery picture looked great for the Chevy Volt.
During this visit, I found the technical center brimming with optimism, and the battery lab was no exception. One of two suppliers, a company called Compact Power (a subsidiary of a big South Korean chemical and advanced-materials company, LG Chem), had delivered two copies of its version of the battery, and on the bench they were testing brilliantly. “They may not look beautiful,” Turner said—the battery was a six-foot-long T-shaped object from which wires, clamps, and circuit boards protruded—“but as far as the data goes, they’re the best I’ve worked with.” Heat is a problem with lithium-ion batteries, but this one was staying cool even when run hard—and the cooling system had yet to be attached.
Moreover, improvements were being incorporated as fast as they could be conceived; the battery would be on its second generation in January, its third in June. “It’s incredible,” Turner said. “The design they’ve come up with for thermal changed 10 times before they delivered the first battery.” And all of this was before the arrival of a competing battery that might be as good or even better, designed jointly by the Massachusetts-based company A123 Systems and the German company Continental A.G. “We’re inventing and creating on the critical path,” Turner said. He was using the industry jargon for the countdown to production, when time is money and delays can cost millions. “I’ve got guys trying to release things before they’re actually invented.”
On the bright side the article reports that GM has lifted the bureaucratic process off of the Volt development team and they make much more rapid progress than the average GM car development team.
But by February 2008 the batteries looked like a big problem. By late March the chief engineer for the Volt still says the battery looks like the pacing engineering problem.
In late March, at the New York auto show, I checked back in with Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer, and asked for an update. “Still just as bad as before,” he said. When I mentioned that another executive had said the underbody was a well-proven design that didn’t need much testing, he shot me a look of disbelief. “There’s a big gaping hole down the center of this car where the battery goes.”
Is this delay a matter of months or years? Even if GM achieves their stated schedule only 70,000 Chevy Volts will be on the road by the end of 2012. That's not enough to make a substantial dent in the problem of declining oil availability.
Some people are optimistic about our ability to shift smoothly from gasoline to electric power for transportation. I'm not so optimistic. I expect we will be able to do so eventually. But I am reminded of the sinking Titanic. Other ships did come to help rescue survivers eventually. When there's a big time gap between when you need something and when you actually get it then you are going to suffer some pain.
Lutz confirmed that in GM's dynamometer tests last week of the Volt's lithium-ion batteries, engineers raised ambient temperatures and shut off the cooling system. The result was what GM had hoped: The battery showed only a slight rise in temperature and the heat was consistent across all of the battery cells with no pockets of intense heat.
Challenges Other Than the Battery Remain
"I can almost say the battery is the least of our problems," Lutz told AutoObserver.
Without knowing how big the other problems are it is hard to interpret this.
On June 5, 2008 he admits the battery testers still do not know about the longevity of the batteries. So GM really does not know if they've got a battery solution.
Our battery teams in Warren and in Germany are working hard in our battery labs to determine that these batteries will work for the life of the vehicle. Still, the conditions in a real-world environment – where the battery is exposed to shaking, moisture and rapidly changing temperature conditions – are much more extreme than the controlled settings of the lab.
But I think it’s important to point out that in the six months since we’ve received the battery pack, we’ve tested it in the lab, then on the dynamometer, and now on the track.
In engineering you often do not know for weeks and months whether you've solved some problem. Testing takes a long time. That might be where GM is now. But they might even still be at the stage where they have known problems without potential solutions in testing. I would want to hear a fresh opinion of the battery test engineers to know where things really stand.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2008 July 03 03:13 PM Energy Electric Cars|