November 30, 2009
Dan Neil Drives Chevy Volt

For those unaware, Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times writes excellent car reviews. He's got one up from his own test drive of the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt pluggable hybrid electric vehicle.

It accelerates with a big husky twist of its electric motor. Actually, you can even chirp the front tires if you push the go-button hard enough -- very unlike a golf cart. It corners confidently and brakes crisply and, if it's no Ferrari, it certainly won't embarrass itself on the 110 Freeway, otherwise known as the Pasadena Grand Prix.

It's comfortable, practical and -- graded on the curve of five-seat family hatchbacks -- reasonably attractive. Think German-made-dishwasher pretty.

The big appeal of the Volt is it that if you drive less than 40 miles per day and don't mind plugging it into electric power every night then you never need buy gasoline. If you need to drive more than 40 miles it switches over to gasoline engine power. If GM can bring the cost of the Volt down far enough then for most commuters Peak Oil will become a non-event (though not so when it comes time to take a vacation and go on a week-end get-aways).

A lot of people expect short battery life in the Volt because batteries wear out in their laptop computers and cell phones. But Rob Peterson of GM Communications showed up here a few weeks ago to explain that the battery for the Volt is a very different design that GM expects will last 10 years or 150,000 miles.

Also, the Volt's battery is a purely automotive design - from the chemistry (li-ion mangnese spinel) based), cell design (prismatic as opposed to cylinder), pack management which restricts overcharging (which impacts calendar life)and deep discharges (which impacts battery power) to automotive quality manufacturing at both the cell and pack levels (both of which will eventually be performed in Michigan). We're increasingly confident - based on test results from both our battery lab and in the nearly 100 Chevy Volt pre-production vehicles - that the battery will meet our internal targets of 10 year, 150,000 miles of life.

Looks like GM can achieve their engineering goals in terms of efficiency, driveability, and durability. So I expect the long term success of the Volt to hinge on the costs of the pluggable hybrid technology. How much will costs of battery and drive train parts go down 5, 6, 7 years from now? Can we expect the Volt's manufacturing costs to ever get below $20k or, better yet, $15k?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 November 30 06:42 AM  Energy Electric Cars


Comments
john personna said at November 30, 2009 7:47 AM:

$20K in today's dollars is probably not necessary. I think the median sales price of a new car in the US is around $28K. Hit that price and (with high gas prices) you have a chance to convert half the fleet. Of course, with low gas prices many will choose the Hemi.

wcw said at November 30, 2009 9:19 AM:

No need to guess: the market has already told you at what price it will absorb this kind of car in volume. GM needs to come in around the Prius's MSRP. If it can, given quality (German dishwasher, really?), sales should take off.

Me, I'd love to see GM succeed wildly here: it would open up the market for someone to produce an electric-only city model. I don't see the point of carting around all the extra weight of an internal combustion engine on a day-to-day basis.

Engineer-Poet said at November 30, 2009 1:49 PM:

You don't have to wait for the electric-only car, just get a Nissan Leaf.

(GM probably sealed its fate when it crushed all the EV1's.  I would not be surprised if it ceased operations before 2020.)

Wolf-Dog said at November 30, 2009 9:38 PM:

A rival company is experimenting with microturbine based recharging mechanism:

http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/11/capstone-turbine-to-unveil-prototype-microturbine-rangeextended-electric-supercar-at-la-auto-show.html#more

The advantage of microturbines is that they can burn not only gasoline, but also other alternative fuels, including methane, natural gas, biodiesel, etc, and these are even cleaner than the small gasoline engine that Chevrolet has. The microturbines need a lot less maintenance also, dramatically simplifying the car design.

Simultaneously, within a few years the range of batteries will also increase and prices will decline. The MAIN issue, however, is to make sure that the US Government subsidizes a national plan to put charging pods in every street. This would cost about one year of imported oil, which is a bargain. Once the charging pods are in every street, and once the range of batteries is close to 200 miles, nobody will complain about the swapping stations to swap batteries.

http://www.betterplace.com/company/video/

In summary, for much less than the money we lost in Iraq, we could have already built the charging pods in every street, and we could have accelerated the development of electric cars.

Isegoria said at December 1, 2009 9:59 AM:

The Volt finds itself in an awkward position, because its green branding requires a long battery-only range, but a long battery-only range is not at all economically justified. Gasoline is a tremendously light, compact, and cheap store of energy. Batteries are, on the other hand, extremely heavy, bulky, and expensive per kilowatt-hour of storage. A Volt with "just" 10 miles of battery-only range would weigh less and cost less and would rarely be carrying more heavy and expensive battery storage than it really needed.

Eric Johnson said at December 1, 2009 11:00 AM:

Well, the gasoline system (including engine) is heavy and expensive too. Assuming the real Volt costs not much under 40 thou, about how much would it cost (now) without the gasoline system, if such a car were for sale.

If I wanted to drive twice 40 miles, I'd just shell out $70 to sleep in a hotel overnight. If I wanted to drive across the USA -- well, I wouldnt be able to, of course.

john personna said at December 2, 2009 7:25 AM:

The interesting thing, with respect to Prius prices, is that you can watch their sales ebb and flow with our recent gas prices. They've had inroads at those prices, a start, but it's not anything I'd really call a shift.

I think I know some people who went to a Nissan Leaf intro party of some kind, it was a hurried conversation, but one came away saying "I'll buy one next year."

Nick G said at December 2, 2009 4:30 PM:

Keep in mind that the battery cells only cost $5,600, even now.

That means that with economies of scale, the Volt shouldn't cost more than $5K over a Prius (and the differential will fall with battery costs). So, we're talking about $30K, which is only $2k more than the average new car.

Just keep the car 20% longer before trade-in (which, for most people, would still be well below 10 years), and you've eliminated the cost differential.

Cost-effective substitutes for oil are only a year away.

Randall Parker said at December 2, 2009 4:47 PM:

Nick G,

I recently read claims of $1200 per kwh. John Petersen points to 3 sources for $1200 per kwh.

The Milunovich report is the third bullish analysis of GEVs that I've reviewed since the beginning of October. The other two came from Credit Suisse and HSBC. All three reports wax poetic on the fuel savings and CO2 reduction potential of GEVs, all three assume that battery pack costs will fall from current levels of roughly $1,200 per kWh to something on the order of $500 per kWh over the next five to ten years, and all three warn that the GEV industry will not bear fruit unless lithium-ion battery developers can deliver on their promises to make cheap, powerful, durable and safe products.
Nick G said at December 3, 2009 3:06 PM:

Randall,

It's very odd just unrealistic many analysts are about costs. We have a direct statement from the supplier of the Volt's pack that the 16KWH pack costs $8,000 (or $500/KWH), and that the individual cells cost $350/KWH.

Here are retail costs, which are also about $350/KWH.

Costs will come down fairly quickly from these levels.

Where do these analysts come up with these unrealistic numbers??

Nick G said at December 3, 2009 3:21 PM:

Randall,

On the one hand, I agree with John Peterson that EVs don't really pay for themselves yet, and don't have the infrastructure they need to appeal to most people.

OTOH, the incremental cost of a PHEV over a HEV pays for itself at $3/gallon gasoline. Add a conservative $1 premium for external costs, and we're well past that point.

And...a PHEV like the Volt is very satisfying: one can be entirely free of oil. I think they'll sell like hotcakes. If you had a child in Iraq, wouldn't you buy one? If you were convinced that Peak Oil would cause gasoline shortages or electrical outages, wouldn't you want a dual-fuel vehicle that use either gas or the grid, depending on which was available?

Scott said at December 6, 2009 5:15 PM:

"Just keep the car 20% longer before trade-in (which, for most people, would still be well below 10 years), and you've eliminated the cost differential."

Nick G, if you can simply choose to keep your electric vehicle 20% longer, why can't I simply choose to keep my gas vehicle 20% longer too? It's not that easy to get rid of the price differential. As long as vehicles like the Volt include electric power alongside gas power, they will always be more expensive than gas-only.

I can see in the near future having electric-only vehicles that rival the capabilities and price of gas-only. But hybrids are mostly just an interesting diversion along the path to electric-only.

Engineer-Poet said at December 7, 2009 6:37 AM:

You won't keep your gas vehicle 20% longer because it wears out faster and is more expensive to fix.  Once the cost of repair gets to a certain point the car isn't worth fixing.  This will go double if the cost of fuel is much higher than for the replacement vehicle; during the 70's, lots of muscle cars were scrapped because they cost too much to run.

Electric stuff runs for ages.  Jay Leno has a 1909 Baker Electric that's still running on its original Edison cells.

Nick G said at December 7, 2009 2:27 PM:

if you can simply choose to keep your electric vehicle 20% longer, why can't I simply choose to keep my gas vehicle 20% longer too? It's not that easy to get rid of the price differential. As long as vehicles like the Volt include electric power alongside gas power, they will always be more expensive than gas-only.

That's true. But, it's not important.

Look, if all you cared about was purchase price, you'd be riding a bicycle, or a 15 year old Honda Civic. In fact, what you care about is much better described as getting the best ride for a certain budget. You're optimizing a lot of things, and cost is only one of them.

So, perhaps you're interested in getting a Volt, and you know that the lifecycle cost is comparable or lower than that of a pure ICE vehicle, but the price is a little too high for your wallet. Well, the answer is to keep it longer, and get a longer-term loan.

I can see in the near future having electric-only vehicles that rival the capabilities and price of gas-only. But hybrids are mostly just an interesting diversion along the path to electric-only.

Sure, eventually EVs are likely to be the best thing. But for now, they don't have the charging infrastructure, and batteries cost too much to give 300 mile range (and even then you can't drive all day). PHEVs are the logical transition.

You may question whether the lifecycle cost is comparable or lower than that of a pure ICE vehicle. Well, E-P has a very good point: PHEVs run mostly on electric, so their maintenance costs will be lower. For instance, Prius drivers have much, much longer brake maintenance intervals, because of regenerative braking. 2nd, the fuel savings will pay for the redundant drive trains. An ICE at 35MPG and 13,000 miles per year costs $1,100 per year - a Volt will cost about $250, and save $850/year. That alone will pay for a $8,500 battery.

Now, if people are willing to buy short-range EVs with nowhere to charge outside the home, god bless em. But I think that's a small niche market at the moment.

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