General Motors is currently planning to build 15,000 extended-range Ampera EVs for the first 12 months of sales in Europe, due to start in November; the company predicts that most will come to the UK.
Nick Reilly, president of GM Europe, said that GM is confident that it “will sell every Ampera we can make.
What we don’t know is the size of the market and we won’t know that for two to three years.”
What is known is that when the Ampera does come to Europe it will have an additional ‘hold’ mode that the current Chevrolet Volt doesn’t have in the U.S.
It’s a feature that allows the driver to hold the charge of the battery by using the range-extending petrol engine until he or she wants to switch to pure EV power – inside the London congestion zone for example.
“It’s a feature I wish we could have here,” said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for Chevrolet Volt.
He has been driving a prototype fitted with the ‘hold’ button and is knocked out by its potential.
In its regular U.S. mode, the Volt drives emissions-free for the first 35 miles using a full charge of electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery.
Until a decision is made later this year on where else Volt/Ampera will be built, all cars will be produced at GM’s sprawling Detroit-Hamtramck plant that started production 25 years ago.
Although production has fallen from 133,362 in 2007 to 35,26 in 2009 and 51,173 last year, the addition of Volt has given the plant and its 1200-strong workforce a new lease of life.
“We build big, expensive cars so we hope the Volt will help us and that we can lift production three-fold by 2013,” said Quigley.
The Volt is built on the same line as the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne; at the moment one car in five is a Volt and as Quigley explains, “DTS and Lucerne are complicated, high value cars so adding Volt was incremental for our workforce rather than a big leap.”
Detroit-Hamtramck currently operates on one shift with production of 290 units a day on a four day a week, ten hour per day schedule.
The Volt batteries come from Brownstown about 20 minutes away by truck and are fitted in much the same way as most car plants fit engines “stuffing” them in from underneath, secured by bolts.
The 5ft-long T-shaped battery weighs 400lbs (180kg); contrast that with the EV1 battery from the 1990s that weighed 1,100lbs and, as your correspondent will testify, made the car feel virtually undriveable when required to corner.
New members of the Volt research team – recruitment is ongoing – are sent to drive an original EV1 so they can gauge how the technology has progressed, said Bill Wallace, head of battery development who added that the good news from the research teams is that cost of batteries is reducing faster than power is increasing.
“In five years batteries will be half the cost of today and smaller.”
The current goal is to increase the range of the Volt from around 40 miles to 100 miles before the petrol range-extending engine has to cut in.
During GM’s Chapter 11 crisis, the Volt development budget was not cut and R&D continued apace, said Wallace.
“We’re adding 1,000 engineers to our electric vehicle areas over the next two years. I really believe that in terms of a high durability, high volume batteries we lead the world.”
And he ends on this note. He is responsible for signing off expenses of his team.
“I can easily tell who is driving a Volt because their fuel bills are so low”.
And for those confused about whether the Volt is a hybrid or a variation on the pure EV theme, Pam Fletcher, chief engineer of the Volt, has a simple answer: Take the battery out, and you can’t drive it; take the engine out and you can.