GM's long, hard, bumpy road to the Chevrolet Volt

This story is the first part of a two-part series. Click here to read the second part.

WARREN, Mich. -- General Motors Corp. made it clear that there is nothing small or temporary about its ambition to dominate the emerging electric car industry when it opened its "Global Battery Systems Lab" here last month. It is the largest battery laboratory in North America, and Fritz Henderson, GM's CEO, said the Chevrolet Volt and the cars that come after it are the "lifeblood of our future."

He drove a prototype of the Chevy Volt into the glare of spotlights pointed down from the ceiling of a warehouse-sized showroom and showed an admiring phalanx of federal, state and local politicians the car's 400-pound, T-shaped battery, mounted on a pedestal nearby. The "new GM," he announced, "intends to be a leader in these technologies."

Visitors to GM's campus-like, 330-acre Technology Center have heard sales drumbeats before. But this year's pitch is different. It's green. Climate change and the downside of fossil fuels were part of the rhetoric as company technicians guided platoons of reporters through the laboratory. They went down hallways newly floored with recycled rubber and were told how the embattled, bankrupt company is planning to power the battery lab with wind turbines mounted on its roof.

Henderson was followed at the podium by Ann Marie Sastry, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan. She explained that GM was also helping to open a companion laboratory at the University of Michigan, where 50 students are signed up to learn the mysteries of making high-technology batteries. "I tell my students you need to stand not where the ball has been, but where the ball is going to be," she explained.

It is tempting to write that, as far as the electric car is concerned, GM has been standing in the wrong place on the automotive court for a long time while other companies, particularly Toyota Motor Corp., scored all the points. But that is not entirely true. The GM experience in making electric-drive vehicles goes back at least 50 years, and the fruit of all that effort is finally beginning to emerge.

As Jon Bereisa, director of advanced engineering for the company, explained it, during the 1950s and '60s, GM produced the batteries and electrical propulsion systems for ballistic missiles and the Apollo project that put the first men on the moon. After the men got there, they drove around in the Lunar Rover, a vehicle that ran on silver-zinc batteries installed by GM.


Driving on the juice from 'Unobtanium'

The power density and durability of these batteries were downright miraculous compared with the simple lead-acid batteries that drivers have had in their cars for over a century. But the silver and other exotic materials packed into the space-age batteries drove their cost above $50,000. While the Pentagon could afford them, car buyers couldn't. Bereisa says the joke among fellow engineers is that the batteries were powered by a mystery-shrouded substance called "unobtanium."

In 1987, shortly after GM bought Hughes Aircraft, the company received an invitation to compete in a contest called the "Pentax World Solar Challenge." It was a race restricted to cars only powered by solar energy. The entrants had to cross the Australian continent -- 1,867 miles. To many automakers, that seemed impossible, but GM executives saw an opportunity to show off what Hughes, its high-tech subsidiary, could do.

GM affiliates and outside contractors built its entry, called "Sunraycer," around an "unobtanium" battery and super-efficient solar cells that Hughes used to power satellites. "That thing put out 1.5 kilowatts, about the power of a hair dryer. We finished first, and it was almost three days before anyone else showed up," recalled Bereisa, wistfully. "By then, the battery was all charged up again, and our guys were inside drinking beer."

According to race records, Ford came in second 2.5 days later, and other competitors were strewn over 646 miles. The German entry quit with a burned-out motor. One of the Japanese entries managed to cross the finish line, but it took 30 days and repair help from American competitors to get there.

GM enjoyed a golden moment in the world's spotlight and, in the imaginations of some younger GM executives, the moment clung. Bereisa remembers getting a phone call from one of them in 1990, when he was back in the Buick division. "How'd you like to ruin your career?" the pitch began. It was the beginning of a three-year sprint to develop the EV1, GM's first modern electric car.

For most of the company's history, gasoline was perfume to GM executives. The most direct career path at the company was engineering and selling gasoline-powered cars. For Bereisa and other members assembled for the EV1 team, this was the beginning of long, difficult and sometimes lonely battle against conventional wisdom.

A battery of surprises

There were big voids in GM's corporate knowledge. The science for making very expensive, high-technology batteries had evolved, but the engineering for making "unobtanium" cheaper hadn't. The economics still dictated a lead-acid battery for the first EV1, and they were too big, too weak and too heavy.

Shortly before the EV1's final test run, an outside inventor came to the rescue with a more potent battery, the nickel metal hydride battery. It was lighter and gave EV1 a range of 75 to 150 miles between charges, but, according to Bereisa, it had some characteristics that drivers would not find so charming. On hot days, it would self-discharge, or lose power in parking lots.

There were promising variations on this battery, but they all relied on the electrochemical reaction between scarce and expensive metals such as nickel, cobalt and chromium -- more unobtanium. "The ideal battery," sighed Bereisa, "would be made out of dirt."

There were many other learning moments, he recalled. When it came time to recharge the first test versions of EV1, the resulting burst of electromagnetic radiation "would knock out television for entire neighborhoods, even people hooked up to cable TV."

GM was not the only automobile manufacturer to have these surprises. Other car companies were also racing to meet California's zero-emissions vehicle standards, which initially required that 2 percent of vehicles sold in the state be emissions-free by 1998.

Bereisa, who chaired a government-private industry consortium in the late 1990s to find the ideal low-cost battery, learned that some companies' test models, using sodium-sulfur batteries, caught fire and burned in parking lots. Others ate their seals and leaked battery fluid. Some batteries committed electrical suicide by growing dendrites, strange, short-circuiting crystals. Others, built around flywheels, simply blew up.

Trying to leapfrog the Prius

GM and other automakers successfully lobbied California to postpone its zero-emissions vehicle standards. The upshot was that EV1 and most other electric vehicle programs were canceled, but the dream limped on. The lithium-ion battery -- not exactly Bereisa's definition of a "dirt" cheap battery, but closer to the target -- was invented in the United States and commercialized in Japan.

Its first commercial uses were for cell phones and laptop computers, but by 2006, the batteries were showing up in durable power tools, and GM managers summoned Bereisa again. He became part of a team to build an "iconic car," one that could use the lithium-ion battery to drive a car that could achieve "zero miles per gallon" in normal commuter driving.

By that time, GM's sales were slumping and Toyota had made a hit with its hybrid-electric Prius. The goal was to build a car that was twice as efficient as the Prius. It was the beginning of the Chevrolet Volt, and the opening of the new battery laboratory here is part of the effort that, GM says, will put the Volt in showrooms late next year.

The lab, in part, is meant to be a guarantee against future surprises. It includes 42 thermal chambers that will test batteries under driving conditions experienced around the globe. There is even a "thermal shaker table" that will be able to shake, bake and freeze them at the same time. There will be an area where GM technicians can tear apart and study batteries built by their competitors.

While GM will assemble lithium-ion batteries in the United States, the cells of the Volt battery -- where the electricity is produced -- will be made by a big South Korean battery manufacturer, LG Chem. It will make the cells, each roughly the size of a stenographic notebook, using a secret process that, so far, has kept costs down and reliability high, according to GM.

"GM is not going to be in the cell manufacturing business, but we're going to be a smart buyer," explained Bob Kruse, GM's executive director of global vehicle engineering. The company, he explained, has teams of experts "all over the globe" studying battery cells for the next generation of electric cars.

Before it drove itself into bankruptcy, the old GM had spent over 1 billion on the Chevrolet Volt. Political signs indicate that the company's new federal overseers remain bullish about the emergence of an American electric car. The Obama administration hopes for steep cuts in automobile emissions, and Congress is very interested in the "green jobs" that go with making cleaner cars.

For Bereisa, part of a team in which some members have spent three decades riding GM's internal highs and lows of enthusiasm about the electric car, the excitement of the moment is palpable: "The band's back together again, but this time we have an audience."

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