DETROIT – Struggling auto giant General Motors Corp. (GM) on Sunday revived its once-failed idea of a mass-market electric car, unveiling a new "concept" car called the Volt designed to use little or no gasoline.
Introduced at the North American International Auto Show here, the Chevrolet Volt will draw power exclusively from a next-generation battery pack recharged by a small onboard engine — if the technology is ready in two or three years.
"We have a thoroughly studied concept, but further battery development will define the critical path to start of production," said Jon Lauckner, a GM vice president for product development.
The Volt is designed to run for 40 miles on pure electric power, making it marketable for everyday family use.
For the average American driver who drives 40 miles a day, or 15,000 miles a year, the Volt will require no fuel and lead to an annual savings of 500 gallons of gasoline, GM said.
Unlike current gas-electric hybrids, which use a parallel system twinning battery power and a combustion engine, the Volt will be driven entirely by electric power.
GM has been stung by criticism that it conspired to kill the EV1, an experimental electric vehicle program it launched in 1996 and killed by 2003. The documentary film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" released last year criticized GM for first developing but then abandoning electric vehicles.
GM said the Volt will have advantages over the defunct EV1, including smaller batteries, faster recharging, more room for passengers, and a faster maximum highway speed.
"For most drivers, the Volt will use little or no gasoline," GM chief engineer Nick Zielinski told reporters.
FIGHTING TO GET "GREEN" — AND TOYOTA?
The Volt is part of GM's bid to demonstrate it is investing in break-through technology with some of the $9 billion saved through a wrenching program of job cuts and plant closures.
"It (Volt) will create a buzz," said Mike Jackson, Chief Executive of AutoNation Inc. (AN), the largest public auto dealership group. "A thing like Volt shocks people who say 'I really didn't expect this from General Motors."
Jackson said a product like Volt would also make consumers take a second look at other vehicles in GM's line-up.
The push to develop environmentally friendly cars is also an attempt by GM to distance itself from its close association with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, a reputation executives say has hampered its sales in some markets.
The Volt's combustion engine is designed only as a supplement to keep its batteries charged, an innovation GM executives hope will help the automaker jump ahead of Toyota Motor Corp. (7203.T), which now dominates the hybrid market.
GM cut 34,000 jobs last year and plans to close 12 plants. Toyota is expected to surpass GM in global production this year, ending a run of more than 80 years for GM as the world's No. 1 automaker.
Plug-in hybrids, a favorite among many environmentalists, are capable of being charged with a standard electric outlet, a feature GM said it would build into the Volt.
"We commend GM for being the first out of the starting gate in the great plug-in car race of 2007," said Felix Kramer, who founded the non-profit group CalCars to spur automakers and regulators to push for mass-market electric car production.
Battery technology is key to the next generation of hybrid vehicles as automakers seek ways to lower the cost of batteries and increase their power and storage capacity.
The Volt will be outfitted with new lithium-ion battery packs, which hold a charge longer than the nickel metal hydride batteries now used widely in automobiles.
Lauckner said the Volt should be ready for production around the same time the lithium-ion batteries will be, which GM expects to be in two to three years.
Automakers have been cautious that lithium-ion batteries, which are now used in consumer electronics such as laptop computers, have a tendency to overheat.
But GM also plans to introduce hybrid systems in its Saturn Vue, Saturn Aura and Chevrolet Malibu cars and in its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks.
Last week, GM awarded lithium-ion battery development contracts for its Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid to Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) affiliate Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions and Cobasys, a venture of Chevron Corp. (CVX) and Energy Conversion Devices Inc. (ENER). Cobasys will work with privately held A123Systems to develop the technology.