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GM flexes electric muscle

Sometimes a promising project that stalls prematurely can still pay off in the long run. Take, for example, GM's foray into the world of electric cars in the 1990s.

  • The beginning of morning rush hour, cars on the highway traveling to and from downtown

Sometimes a promising project that stalls prematurely can still pay off in the long run. Take, for example, GM’s foray into the world of electric cars in the 1990s.

An inconvenient truth that you won’t hear Al Gore talking about any time soon is that General Motors has put many of the engineers involved in its long-abandoned EV-1 electric car project into a new group to develop what it calls E-Flex technology.

E-Flex is the hybrid powertrain shown in the Chevrolet Volt concept car that’s now the subject of a big push to bring it to production within two to three years. It employs an electric drive motor and a lithium-ion battery pack and has a small combustion engine on board to charge the batteries and extend the car’s range.

The key to the technology is the lithium-ion battery pack, which GM estimates will cost $10,000 per vehicle. When the E-Flex project started, GM intended to farm out the battery construction and associated control systems to specialist companies in the electrical industry. It will shortly announce which of the two battery suppliers involved in the development — CPI (part of LG of Korea) or Continental AG — will supply the multiple lithium-ion cells for the first E-Flex production cars, which should be available in 2011.

GM is betting big on going the E-Flex route, which veteran product guru Bob Lutz predicts could account for a million cars a year in 10 years’ time. The new team of some 500 engineers — many of whom worked on EV-1 until the project was scrapped in 1999 — is an indication of the importance that GM now places on electric cars in the future. It has decided to bring more of the electric vehicle technology in-house.

Lutz said, “The whole battery pack — cell chemistry, pack construction, control and monitoring systems — is new core knowledge for the auto industry. We see mainstream cars rapidly transitioning to electrification.”

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