Andy Frank on the Chevy Volt: A move in the right direction

Last week GM unveiled the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric car, claiming it could get 230 mpg in typical use. The Volt is expected to hit the market in 2010.

Like the Toyota Prius, the Volt will have an electrical motor and a gasoline engine to drive the wheels. Unlike current hybrids on the road, the Volt will have a large battery pack that can be recharged from a domestic outlet, allowing it to travel a significant distance on electrical power alone. Commuters who drive short distances around town, for example, might not use the gasoline engine at all.

UC Davis engineering professor Andy Frank is widely regarded as the “father of the plug-in hybrid.” In 2006, he established a company, Efficient Drivetrains Inc. (EDI), which has licensed his inventions to develop them for the market.

I asked Frank what he thought of the Volt, and this is his response.

You are right that the Chevy Volt and the recent cancellation of the US DOE Fuel Cell program is vindicating what I have been saying all along.  However vindication has not brought me any money to carry on my research!

The Chevy Volt is certainly a move in the right direction that the US government would like to see, but it is missing a main point. I showed that such a car could be built 20 years ago. So that is not new! But when introducing a new concept into society it must be:
1. Economically affordable
2. Fit the present energy infrastructure
3. Meet and exceed the performance of the existing product in all dimensions
4. Be able to offer advantages that cannot be met by the existing product.

These are 4 minimal criteria that must be met by any new product.

I think the only criteria that the Volt really fits is the charging with 110-volt standard circuits. But they are encouraging 220-volt charging which means they are eliminating the possibility of charging in public places. Also it means they are not necessarily focused on designing an efficient 110-volt charging system.

They are also not focusing on getting public charging infrastructure which would help their sales.

On the cost issue, the UC Davis system now being commercialized by EDI can bring the cost of the Volt down by $10,000 or more but GM has chosen not to use our technology for now.

The other areas of advantage would be for GM to engineer auxiliary products like integrated systems for home solar and charging systems that can be sold along with the car, thus introducing the idea of buying a car and its fuel for the life of the car.

“We’ll see if GM are really serious,” Frank says.

Chevrolet Volt official site

UC Davis Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicle Center

Efficient Drivetrains Inc.

4 responses to “Andy Frank on the Chevy Volt: A move in the right direction

  1. I think Professor Frank is right to be skeptical. As pointed out in the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, big car manufacturers and other industrial heavyweights always seem to approach greater fuel efficiency in a kind of half-hearted way. My 1965 Volkswagen bug got 30mpg. It is inconceivable to me that, more than 40 years later, that is still way above average fuel economy. Granted, the few modern cars that can achieve 30mpg are cleaner, more comfortable and stylish than the old bugs, but why has that been the focus of development? Why haven’t we seen a real drive towards 60, 70, 100mpg? All the likely answers reflect a great deal of cynicism.

    The Volt caused a lot of sensation when it was first announced. Its specs have been steadily downgraded since then. Still it represents “a move in the right direction”. But where is the real commitment as described in Professor Frank’s 4 points? Is this just another bit of hype that will be allowed die on the vine? Little things like being able to charge at 110V are exactly what will make the difference. Sure, 220V is easier to make work, but a committed company would find a way to provide a 110V option. It will be interesting to see this unfold. Let’s hope it is not disheartening.

  2. Electric vehicles totally miss the point.

    As far as pollution goes, you’re just shifting where the emissions come from. Without switching the US energy grid to a clean resource, you’re still burning coal, natural gas or some other emission producing resource to generate the electricity that powers your vehicle. So what does driving around in an electric car really do for the environment? It would appear, not much.

    As far as the economics go, I’d like to see some numbers. So with gasoline at $3/gallon, there’s a substantial savings to be had when your vehicle gets 240mpg as opposed to 30 mpg, but again, we’re just shifting where the cost comes from. How much does it cost to fully charge the battery bank on the vehicle while it’s plugged in at your home, and how far can that single charge get you? Let’s see a dollars/mile comparison.

    As far as I’m concerned, electric vehicles don’t provide any viable solution to any “problem” their proponents bring up. They’re alternatives at best. Until someone comes up with an economically efficient, clean running vehicle (including the process to manufacture the vehicle and supply it with energy), I’m not sold.

  3. I would like to comment that I think GM is going in the right direction building a long distance electric car with a small engine to extend range. Hopefully more auto makers will follow.

    Here’s some of the benefits I see by being able to charge a plug in hybrid electric vehicle from the electric utility rather than buying gasoline from foreign countries to charge it like the Toyota Prius depends on.

    Benefits, able to be charged from many different electrical sources of power such as:
    – Clean hydro electric power
    – Solar Panels
    – Wind Mills
    – Geo Thermal Power
    – Tidal / Ocean Power
    – Nuclear Power
    – Natural Gas
    – Coal
    – Diesel
    – Methanol and Ethanol
    – Propane
    – Fuel Cells or Hydrogen
    – Solar Mirror Boilers

    As for electrical cost per mile, I’ve done some experiments on two personal electric cars I’ve built and owned.
    For example, I was filling up my battery pack for $4.22 per full charge, and driving 127 miles of city driving, giving the cost per mile to be 3.3 cents per mile.

    The math, my battery pack held 29.3KWh, and took 35.16KWh to fill her up at 12 cents per KWh that’s $4.22 per full charge. It’s been documented that the car went 127 miles on one charge. Dividing the $cost/mile, $4.22/127 miles you get 3.3 cents per mile for electricity.

    Electric car motors are far more efficient (3X more) than piston engines, so you are creating far less pollution at the point of electrical generation.

    I can’t wait for electric cars to become popular, especially using small multi fuel engines for long trips that run on: natural gas, propane, gasoline, alcohol, diesel, etc.

    Bruce McCaskie, UC Davis

  4. I would like to purchase an eltrceic car, however I’m still skeptical of the cost/benefit. It is not enough to be just environmentally friendly. The business case has to close, and there are many variables. If all cars were like the Volt, what would the effect be to the grid as a system? How will moving to this type of car effect the taxation system that currently is based on fuel taxes? There are so many questions like this? If coal is the fuel to generate the eltrceicity, does the carbon footprint merely get transferred to another source so that a car’s’ footprint remains the same? Are we all being fooled by the fact the there is no free lunch with energy costs.Is the Volt built in American by American’s? Does this really matter anymore? Why is this better than mass transit? $41K is a lot of money for a car, even with a rebate! Th

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