Yesterday we took a trip out the sprawling campus of the GM Tech Center in Warren Michigan. The enormous Aro Flynn designed complex has been recently upgraded with the Vehicle Tech Center, where we would be rubbing elbows with about eighty of the industries finest hacks and flacks for the day. The motor press had all decended on the complex for a rare glimpse inside the world of GM development, and not for just any car, but for the incredibly important and high profile Chevy Volt. The day would consist of four parts, all designed to prove the Volt wasn't just vaporware, but indeed reaching some level of technical completeness. First we would be paying a visit the all important battery lab, then the digital visualization center, a brief lunch — GM loves their potato salad by the way — and then a trip to the styling studio and finally the wind tunnel.
After a brief intro to the world of the Chevy Volt and a lot of cheerleading about how fantastically unique the program is, things got down to business. We were split into groups and hit the buses — probably to confuse and disorient us — and we went over to the battery lab. There we saw the batteries undergoing accelerated testing in a nice hot lab. The idea is to stress the competing battery designs to ensure they would still deliver the promised 40 miles in full EV mode at the end of 10 years and 150,000 miles. It was interesting to see a real GM EV1 and it's "T" shaped battery pack still in the lab, next to which the new T-pack was sitting. The new one is a lot smaller and lighter, featuring lithium-ion batteries instead of lead acid like the EV1 was equipped with. The system is designed to just slide right up into a faux drive shaft tunnel and bolt into place as a stressed member. Pretty slick.
Next we headed over to the 3D visualization studio. The theater is designed to work with active polarized goggles which allow a greater 3D effect and limits the negative effect of an obtuse viewing angle. There we watched as the operator virtually built the chassis and drivetrain of the Volt, which is based on the next generation small car platform. They added the all-important battery first as this is being marketed as an "Extended range EV" more than a hybrid, so they continually reinforced the point throughout the day. Then came the suspension, which was a pretty standard trailing arm setup in the back and a McPherson up front (really long funny anti-roll bar links though). Next came the "power pack" — a conglomeration of engine, generator, and electric motor. Apparently they haven't finalized which engine to run in the car yet, because the durability and performance characteristics are so different than a conventional car. If you think about it, they'll want something that is better driving a generator, and yet, only operates about 10-20% of the time during normal driving since it's a plug in car as well.
After lunch and commentary we took the bus out to the design studio, which is dedicated to the Volt for this program. There we got a peek at the nose and tail of the Volt. Bob Boniface, designer director, told us they had joked the original would have been more aerodynamic if they had turned it around backwards. With the production design, that's basically what they're doing. The smooth shapes at the rear of the concept have replaced the squared and geometric shapes of the front for production. The rear has taken inspiration from the concept, but has been adapted with kamm-back like shapes to cheat the air for less drag. The interior is pretty slick looking in that jetsons-meets-quirky-Italian-coachbuilder kind of way. While what we saw of the interior was still in clay and rapid prototyping pieces, the overall effect was slick and futuristic, and not at all unfamiliar. We got the impression the General is going to have a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to the driver experience here.
Finally we visited the largest wind tunnel in the automotive industry. The biggest wind tunnel we've ever worked with is probably only 15 feet long and that was for fluid dynamics way back in college. This baby was positively HUGE It was the whole building in fact. A 1/3 sized Volt was on the test deck (and completely covered in camo tape for our not viewing pleasure) but you could fit a school bus in there. The folks running the place gave us the rundown on what they do, how they do it, and even some of the really clever tricks built into the tunnel (like a very cool vacuum lip in front of the test area to 'slice-off' the troublesome boundary layer when simulating road conditions). While walking through the re-direction vanes in the corners of the rectangular shaped building, we emerged staring face to face with every art deco steampunk nerds wet dream. A looming zeppelin shape towered above us in a rounded duct over 50 feet across. Six enormous hand-formed wooden blades attached to a concealed 4300 horsepower GE electric motor. This is what shock and awe looks like. This beast of a fan is capable of driving wind speeds in the tunnel up to around 120 MPH and here we were standing under it — cool. After seeing that, we walked back around to the test platform and they fired the system up — with us in it. While they only turned it up to about 30 MPH, it was plenty fast enough for us to watch a smoke wand demonstration of the aerodynamics on the Volt. However, after seeing that fan it was a little hard to get excited about the Volt again. So there you have it, yes the Chevy Volt is real, saw it with our own two eyes, and there are a lot of excited people working on it as we speak. Lutz called for this concept and wanted this program to be more than just a car, he wanted it to reestablish GM as a technical leader. If they can pull of the timing, they're talking about a start of production in November of 2010 — an aggressive target when wading back into the waters of mass produced electric vehicles, even more aggressive when throwing an onboard generator into the mix. Based on what we saw, we're pretty excited to see this come to fruition, and based on our experience on that side of the fence, they've even got a shot at doing it on time. As we toured the place and saw the progress and concepts, on thing kept rolling around in our heads - why didn't someone try this before?
Source: Future Vehicles: Spending The Day With The Chevy Volt