The Chevrolet Volt is unlike anything General Motors has ever produced. When the highly anticipated electric vehicle (EV) with extended range capability goes into production next month, it will be the culmination of design, engineering and marketing teams quite unique in the industry.
"I would debate anybody who thinks they have a more exciting job than me," declared Britta Gross, director of Global Energy Systems and Infrastructure Commercialization at GM. "It's a very positive, uplifting job."
Gross and three other women at GM were instrumental in every aspect of the Volt's design, engineering, testing, marketing and production. A typical day for this 51-year-old mother of two is coordinating with both utility companies and municipalities that are preparing to support electric vehicles.
"The Volt is the easiest thing to market and talk about," Gross said, adding that she has seen a change in what consumers want from their vehicles.
Preparing utility companies and the communities in which they operate to get "plug-in ready" will not only help Volt owners, but also owners of other electric vehicles coming in the future. Gross is also working to dissuade the masses from "range fear," i.e. the collective fret that an EV will leave its driver stranded on the road should it run dry, which just isn't the case with Volt.
The five-door, four-passenger Volt is the first mass-produced, plug-in electric vehicle with a range-extending onboard engine. It is expected to deliver more than 50miles/64kms of electric driving followed by a gasoline-engine that kicks in automatically when needed for longer excursions.
Gas engine aside, Volt drivers can charge up the EV from a 240V charging station installed in their garage. More importantly, the Volt can also take a charge from any standard 120V outlet, anywhere.
"The bottom line with the Volt is, you are never really going to get stuck," Gross said. "It isn't like a pure electric vehicle."
Meanwhile, Cristi Landy, Product Marketing Manager for the Chevrolet Volt, used her background as an electrical engineer to make the Volt intuitive and easy to drive. The 43-year-old mother of twin boys has been working on the Volt project for four years. It's her job to act as a liaison between engineering and marketing. One of the features Landy has been working on is smartphone applications that allow Volt owners to manage remote functions in the car.
"We wanted to make it easy to use, and make it intuitive," Landy said. She noted that early on in the project, the Volt mainly appealed to technology's so-called "early adopters," folks who tend to buy every new gadget or technologically-advanced vehicle as it comes to market. "[They] were the ones that really grabbed hold of the project," Landy said, but stipulated that GM did not want to create an EV that would intimidate the regular consumer.
Part of Volt's early-adopter appeal is the way the driver can communicate it. What started as a communications device between driver and car in the form of a bulky key fob later became an easy-to-use application (app) for Android, Apple and Blackberry smartphones. The app manages convenience functions such as heating and air conditioning, so that the cabin can be pre-set to a preferred temperature before the driver gets into the car. Other controls like remote door locks, battery range and charge monitor are also accessed through the Volt app, which can even text or email its owner when, for example, the EV becomes unplugged, intentionally or otherwise.
One of the more novel features of the Volt, which runs silent under electric power and could therefore sneak up on pedestrians more accustomed to the drone of a car's motor in the vicinity, is a pedestrian-friendly alert system. "It gives a little friendly chirp to let someone know you are there," Gross explained.
Similarly, Volt's built-in sensors assist drivers with parking and comes with a back-up/rearview camera, standard.
To make certain the Volt will run properly in all types of weather conditions, Pam Fletcher, Chief Engineer for Volt and Plug-In Hybrid Propulsion Systems, heads up a team that has taken weather testing to extremes.
Fletcher, a 44-year-old mother of three, worked on the propulsion systems for Tahoe, Escalade and Yukon hybrids prior to working on the Volt.
"Every subsystem of the Volt had to be rethought," Fletcher said. "We had to develop, think about, and decide how to pull it off."
Because Volt is an electric car with extended range, Fletcher's team came up with a distinctive strategy: "Lead with the battery and follow with the engine," she explained. "That's not usually how the engine behaves."
After rethinking nearly every aspect of "car" to fit the uniqueness of Volt, the first prototypes were built. Fletcher and her team then set about testing them out in extreme conditions. "Battery chemistry is not conducive to extreme weather," Fletcher explained, adding that tailored tests were created to specifically analyze the EV's unique features."
To test the Volt in cold weather, GM utilized a facility in Kapuskasing, Ontario Canada, where the car was put through a variety of cold start tests. If the outside weather wasn't cold enough (it's not always igloo and dogsled weather, after all), the Volt was put into a giant freezer and left over night. Ultimately, the car was cold-tested to -40c, according to Fletcher.
For testing the Volt in hot weather, GM chose the Southern California desert as Kapuskasing's polar opposite - good call - and as a result, the Volt's battery now features its own heating and cooling system integral to its innovative EV essentials. There is also a more conventional, below-the-bumper air scoop that helps cool the engine and battery when in motion while the front "grill" is closed off for better aerodynamics - which turned out to be essential as well.
In order to make the Volt more energy efficient, Nina Tortosa, General Motors Aerodynamics Engineer - or lead aerodynamicist, for short - said her team got involved near the onset of the project. Typically, drag accounts for about 20 percent of the energy consumed in an average vehicle, directly impacting vehicle fuel efficiency - battery life, too, in Volt's case. Reducing wind drag allows the Volt to eek every last bit of energy out of the lithium-ion battery before switching over to the gas-powered engine. Not only that, when the extended-range engine is in use, Volt's slipstream sensibilities allow it runs with a high level of fuel efficiency.
"Aerodynamic testing was done a lot earlier than in other vehicles because of the range difference," Tortosa explained in a phone interview. At the time, she was in San Diego, Calif. as part of the Volt Unplugged tour, a public showing of the EV in several major cities.
Tortosa spent 500 hours with the Volt in the wind tunnel at the GM Aerodynamics Laboratory in Warren, Michigan, often testing and tweaking changes in 1 millimeter increments. The 36-year-old mother of two estimates aerodynamic development on the Volt extended the electric-only range by 7 miles/11 kms at highway speeds.
"We tried to keep the vehicle closed up as much as possible," she said, adding that a tightly closed cabin also aides in noise reduction - not from vehicle noise, because there is practically none, but from noises outside the vehicle. Tortosa also remarked that Volt's quiet cabin makes using hands-free devices, OnStar and listening to music much clearer.
"The Volt concept vehicle gave the designers freedom to come up with a bold design," Tortosa said, adding that this made her job challenging. In most circumstances, reducing the weight of a vehicle noticeably increases its fuel efficiency, for example, but tests proved this was not quite true for Volt. "The change in weight did not have as much effect as the changes in aerodynamics," she revealed.
Just about every aspect of the Volt's body is aerodynamic, starting with the closed off grill in the front of the car to the lines along the sides and rear of the vehicle. Tortosa and her team began by running tests with a 1/3 scale clay model, eventually a full-scale model and then prototype vehicles after that.
In addition to fuel economy and range, Tortosa explained that emissions and acceleration are also affected by wind resistance; maximizing aerodynamic efficiency of the Volt was imperative.
Tortosa declared that taking the Volt on the road was the best part of the experience. She related stories of getting a "thumbs up" from other drivers out on the road, and even a Prius driver gave her a nod. "I said 'I like your car.,'" she recounted. "He said 'I like yours better.'"
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The Women of Volt
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