July 03, 2008
GM Volt Battery Tech Lagging

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.

Update: On May 14 GM Vice Chairman struck what sounds like a more optimistic note on the battery.

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

odograph said at July 3, 2008 4:10 PM:

As I've said, don't count your chickens until they are hatched.

Kerry Beuht said at July 3, 2008 8:44 PM:

Reading Rauch's article was quite a laugh. We all got a good laugh ripping his article to shreds
over at gm-volt.com, the only source of reliable and factual info about the Volt development program.
He obviously had a theme and manufactured his facts to match. People looking for reliable
auto info , I've found, seldom (as in "never") look to the Atlantic Monthly. Rauch made many errors
and most of his "facts" were obsolete by the time the article appeared. The Chevy Volt
battery packs are running superbly - so much so that Bob Lutz over two weeks ago called
them "the least of our problems." And there aren't much in the way of other problems
either. At to those claimed production figures of 70K thru 2012, I'd doubt those. It's
certain that the first year will be a go slow year, as GM always does with significant new
technology, but after that "the sky's the limit" according to Lutz and Wagoner, which sounds
like more than 70K to me. The media has consistently screwed up the Volt story, with dated
material and downright fraudulent claims. A typically unreliable journalist in the WSJ the other day was
claiming that the Volt on liquid fuel "wouldn't get 15 MPG" (it will get around 50 MPG,
everyone agrees) , and for some bizarre reason was convinced the Volt was only a "city car,"
a unexplicably brainless belief since the Volt prefers garages and car ports for recharging,
things not on great abundance in city canyons and condos. It wasn't clear that the journalist
had any understanding about the Volt at all. He referred to it as a "political tool," never
bothering to explain what in the hell he might have meant by that strange concept.
As for effect, the Volt has the
ability to avoid between 10 and 14 times the gasoline and emissions that the Toyota Prius,
giving 70K Volts the ability to save more gas than 700,000 to 980,000 Prius cars. Fewer than
1 1/2 million Prius cars exist on the road after many years of production. It's quite clear that
the Volt will have a major effect, as will its Opel, Saturn, Pontiac and Cadillac siblings in the
next few years.

Aron said at July 3, 2008 11:29 PM:

Will someone remind me why Coal=> Gas is not the logical short-term move at this point?

Randall Parker said at July 6, 2008 8:47 AM:


Coal-To-Liquid always seems cost effective if only oil goes up another $20 to $30 per barrel. Maybe we'll see it once the markets become totally convinced the price of oil is only going up. Maybe it is cost effective now. But it is incredibly capital intensive and the cost of steel and other pieces of capital keep going up too.

Nick G said at July 7, 2008 12:44 PM:

"By late March the chief engineer for the Volt still says the battery looks like the pacing engineering problem."

He was talking about under-body design. Look again at the quote: "another executive had said the underbody was a well-proven design that didn’t need much testing". This is unrelated to the battery.

Every report indicates that both batteries are doing extremely well. Could there be problems? Well, A123systems batteries have been in the field for years. It's competitor is an extremly large, competent company. Finally, we have redundancy in the two competititors. GM wants a very high level of assurance (as they should), but there's no question that these batteries come very close to their high level of endurance specifications, and very little chance that one of them won't meet those specs entirely.

Nick G said at July 7, 2008 12:50 PM:

CTL was competitive with $50 oil just 2 years ago. I have a hard time believing it's not competitive with $100 oil now.

The common cost quoted was $100K/barrel/day production capacity. If it works for 30 years that's a capital cost, including 8% interest, of $24/barrel!

The key here, of course, is that oil prices have to stay relatively high for a very long time. That's why potential CTL developers asked for federal guaranteees. Of course, with oil over $100, the payoff period has shortened greatly.

Nick G said at July 7, 2008 12:57 PM:

I forgot one point:

"February 2008 the batteries looked like a big problem. "

That was a discussion of the engineering of cooling systems, not the battery. That was a design problem, not a tech problem, and the prototype systems in question were on the road in May.

Ned said at July 18, 2008 10:59 AM:

Coal to Gas's major problem is the amount of CO2 emissions that it creates. Now that that has become a major issue, companies aren't willing to invest the huge amounts it would take to commercialize this technology (outside of SASOL in South Africa) with the likelihood that CO2 admissions will get hit with a heavy tax in the next few years.

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