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Volt battery developer says temperature a problem for all batteries

CHICAGO -- It's a tough week to be the guy who led development of the Chevy Volt's battery. Consumer Reports on Monday said its tests showed the battery's range at a paltry 23 to 28 miles in cold weather, far below the 40 miles originally promised.

2011 Chevrolet Volt
This Dec. 2, 2009 file picture shows the 2011 Chevrolet Volt during its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

CHICAGO -- It's a tough week to be the guy who led development of the Chevy Volt's battery. Consumer Reports on Monday said its tests showed the battery's range at a paltry 23 to 28 miles in cold weather, far below the 40 miles originally promised.

"The financial payback is not there," said Jake Fisher, a senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. A hybrid, he said in an interview, would make more sense. (The Volt -- which runs as a fully electric plug-in vehicle and switches to gasoline power once that battery is depleted -- cost Consumer Reports $48,000 at a dealership before a $7,500 federal tax credit. Toyota's Prius is about half that price.)

Then on Tuesday, Ford Motor Co. seized on the negative press for the Volt by issuing its own news release: "Weather Climates No Problem for Ford Focus Electric's Liquid-Heated Battery System."

But Bill Wallace, director of global battery systems for General Motors Corp., didn't flinch.

"It turns out batteries are like people: They love room temperature," Wallace said Thursday at an energy forum at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Wallace chalked up the bad review from Consumer Reports to being first in the market.


"Nobody -- Ford, Nissan or anybody -- has anything better," he said. "I'm certain that a year or two from now, when they're actually in the market and they're actually showing cars, they will not be able to outperform us."

Other reviews noting the limited range of electric vehicles in extreme temperatures are likely on the way.

"There's a new battlefield, and certainly the technology's moving very quickly, and everybody wants to say they're the best," Fisher said. "There's variations. Some will be better than others. But in the end, any of the technologies that are out there are very limited in terms of their capacity."

Even Ford seemed to back off a bit on its claims. "We're not seeing a big breakthrough in the next few years in terms of where you will suddenly be able to drive an electric vehicle and not have the battery be affected by temperature," Sherif Marakby, director of electrification programs and engineering at Ford, said in an interview Thursday.

Batteries that are too cold are reluctant to release electrons, and batteries that are too hot don't live as long. In electric vehicles, that means charging more often. In an extended-range vehicle such as the Volt, that means the vehicle will switch over to gasoline sooner than it would in moderate temperatures.

To deal with this problem, auto manufacturers like GM and Ford sandwich their batteries' lithium-ion cells with materials that can heat or cool the battery when it is in danger of growing too hot or too cold. But that technology only goes so far.

"When you're driving in the cold, you want heat. That's going to shorten your range, no matter what kind of battery you have," Fisher said.

But there will be other breakthroughs. Battery technology is evolving at such a rapid clip that within five years, the batteries inside today's electric vehicles will be relics, according to experts in the battery industry.


By then, lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles are expected to cost less than half what they do today, and chemical advances could quadruple the range of today's first generation models, said panelists who discussed battery technology Thursday at the 2011 Midwest Energy Forum, sponsored by the Polsky Center of Entrepreneurship at Booth. Wallace participated on the panel, then spoke afterward with the Chicago Tribune.

GM is taking advantage of that rapid battery advancement. In January, the company invested $17 million in California-based startup Envia System to provide GM's battery engineering team access to advanced lithium-ion cathode technology that would lower the cost of its batteries while increasing range.

The same month, GM forged a licensing agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to use Argonne's composite cathode material to make batteries that will last longer between charges and can charge at higher voltages.

"If we could transfer that value to our end customers, that would ultimately bring down their costs," Wallace said.

Consumer Reports said the Volt cost about 5.7 cents per mile in electric mode and 10 cents per mile in gasoline mode, versus 6.8 cents per mile for the Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle that switches back and forth between gas and battery power.

"Cheaper electricity and more expensive gas could tip the scales in its favor," Consumer Reports said of the Volt. "For now, it seems that owning a Volt is an expensive way to be green."

Wallace defended the Volt against hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and against other electric vehicles.

"A lot of people say, 'It's not a pure electric.' The reality is today, most of you, if you buy an electric vehicle today, you'll have another car in your garage," he said.


Because the Volt switches to gasoline when the battery runs out, drivers won't have the "range anxiety" (or the fear of being stranded without somewhere to charge up) that could keep an electric vehicle owner holding on to their gasoline-powered vehicle for certain trips, he said.

Whether or not the Volt gets more miles to the gallon than a hybrid, said Wallace, really comes down to the end-user. With a commute of about 18 miles, Wallace said, he rarely needs to use gasoline in his Volt. Hybrid users can't avoid using gasoline.

"I drove my Volt for a month, and I used two gallons of gas," he said.

Driving from Detroit to Chicago for the forum in frigid temperatures, the Volt switched to gasoline after 26 miles and pulled in 50 miles to the gallon in fuel economy over the course of the trip, Wallace said.

An all-electric vehicle, he said, would have to be hauled to Chicago on a flatbed.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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