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March 19, 2010

News & Features

To debut an all-new car in less than a year, a group of engineers goes all out

Associated Press


(Illustration by Andy Zapata)

From charging the Chevrolet Volt's revolutionary power system to washing the car, everything about the extended-range electric vehicle is new. But Volt owners also must find it familiar and easy to use.

Racing to meet those twin goals on an unprecedentedly tight schedule, the engineering team working on the Volt has 25 to 30 of the cars on the road at all times. The deadline is the Volt's on-sale date in less than a year.

"There's still a lot to do, and not much time," says chief engineer Andy Farah. "It's all part of the natural evolution of any engineering program, but at warp speed."

Volt facts
  • • The Chevrolet Volt has a 40-mile range on battery power and a small engine that serves as a generator of electric power for longer trips, extending the rage to 400 miles.
  • • The car should get a 210-mpg EPA fuel-economy rating in city driving, according to GM's projections.
  • • It is expected to cost $35,000-$40,000 before a $7,500 tax credit.
  • • Chevy aims to have the car on sale in November.

Every system, every part must be double-checked and idiot-proofed. Volt engineering manager Nate Fitzpatrick sent his 10-year-old son out to plug the Volt in for charging. "I didn't give him any directions. I wanted to see if we'd made it easy for the owner," Fitzpatrick says. "He figured it out right away."

The rush program to get the Volt on sale by November has become a 24/7 job for engineers. They are charged with developing the car that's intended to revolutionize the auto industry and reinstate General Motors as a leader in advanced technology.

"We're learning all the time," Farah said as seven of the team members met for a Monday debriefing last month after driving the cars all weekend.

The daily test drives have led to changes in everything from how owners will recharge the Volt to an 11th-hour redesign of the door for its charging port after it fell off in car washes.

Chevy Volt

(General Motors)

"The guy who runs the car wash came up to me with a box of parts and said, 'You might have a problem here,' " Rob Bolio, lead development engineer, explained to the group. After a quick design revision, Bolio and a design engineer spent four hours taking Volts through the car wash with no damage except to their patience.

"We're easygoing," Fitzpatrick says. "When there's an issue, we give them 24 hours to address it. This has all the challenges of any new vehicle -- and all this brand-new technology. It makes the timing particularly challenging."

For every question any new car must answer -- how do the brakes feel, does the navigation system work, and a thousand more -- there's a question that's unique to the Volt.

With the first test cars, Bolio woke up two or three times a night to check to see whether they were charging in his driveway. Since then, the engineers have added a light to signify that the car is plugged in and charging, as well as a subtle "charging now" beep and a timer.

"Owners can set the car to charge whenever they like," Farah says. "Just like big commercial customers, they can take advantage of the really low electricity rates in the middle of the night. It's like a programmable coffeemaker; you tell it when you want the car to be ready to go, and it'll be charged for you."


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