Chevy Volt proves EV1 technical knowledge not wasted

There are plenty of naysayers who still condemn GM for cancelling the EV1 program. Likewise, there are those who thought the Volt would never get past the prototype stage. No matter which side you may be on, be apprised the technical knowledge gained was never wasted.

And, in case you weren’t looking, there is now a technical renaissance emerging within the auto industry. The electrification of the automobile is spreading and driving gains within the internal combustion engine as well.

A recent article at revealed a bit of technical development history. Frankly, I think it was good for GM to do this, as few companies reveal their inner workings. Truth is, failure and perceived failure oftentimes provide as much knowledge as immediate success.

Point is, it is the nature of automotive product development and a fact of automotive life that not all programs or concepts make it into production. Money, and lots of it, may be spent on a prototype program, but that is nowhere near the expense of taking it into high-volume production at 60 units per hour; and worse if it fails.

Still, programs may die, but the concepts have a life of their own. So, regardless of a vehicle’s propulsion system, many components and sub-systems can be borrowed from previous development programs and made common for a future program. That’s when the most money is saved.

Consider traction motors and generators, power electronics and battery management systems. Furthermore, each alternative drive vehicle also relies on systems like electric power assisted steering, electronic brake control and electric climate control, which are common and increasing in commonality

Now, not every idea should make it into production; some cost too much and there are other disruptive technologies that will soon make them obsolete. So, why risk the investment when all you may get is diminishing returns?

Fact is, the public is simply not aware of these automotive realities and tradeoffs. Creativity can empower us to build a single model, but not every creative idea is fit for commercialization; and even those that do often make it difficult meeting quality goals at the production rate of 60 units per hour. That is a factor that must be considered. It’s not personal; just business!

Still, all designers and engineers feel a sadness and disappointment each time a program gets cancelled. I know that feeling well, because I have had a few of those in my designing days at Saturn, GM and earlier at suppliers. One of them that hurt was the GMX316, a modified Saturn Vue with a truck bed. It was cool because it had a door that entered through the back; it had great potential. There was even a larger Vue with 7 passengers, the GMX318. Oddly enough, all were cancelled, and Saturn as a company was later demolished as a brand.

Now imagine how it feels to work years on a program only to have the advance technology get canned. Fortunately, the auto industry is not as dumb or as wasteful as some believe. They know how to take idea-A and mix it with idea-B to get idea-C. Then again, sometimes an idea is simply ahead of its time.

Take the fuel cell, for example. They have been on space shuttles for decades. However, GM was experimenting with them in two Corvairs way before that. Point is, even that knowledge was put to good use. Today, GM has the working Equinox HydroGEN.

Now take the EV-1 and the Chevy Volt. Many of the technologies used in the Volt resulted from the development of the ground-breaking EV1 in the 1990s, the Two-Mode hybrid SUVs and pickup trucks. Likewise, the fuel cell Chevrolet Equinox used for the Project Driveway program are part of the Volt.

Auto engineers are an adaptive bunch. At GM, for example, engineers have learned to adapt entire sub-systems such as the EV1-descended component motors developed for the front-wheel drive hybrid system, as well as the electronically controlled brakes from the fuel cell Equinox. With so much of that experience behind them, it freed the team to focus more resources on the new lithium ion battery and overall vehicle integration for the Volt.

The bottom line is, all technical advancements, whether used immediately or shelved for a time, can still pay off in future vehicle generations. It happened for the Volt and will happen for other electric and hybrid vehicles coming to market, including those with internal combustion engines. Witness the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist. It consumes and pollutes less thanks to the use of more energy efficient systems developed for electrified vehicles.

Additional Reading:

Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy 2011 to be largest energy conference in 22 years
GM working on plug-in hybrid Cadillac SRX
Projected fuel cell costs decline 81 percent since 2003

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