Friday, July 13, 2007

GM thinks design for green cars

Wednesday, July 04, 2007
GM thinks design for green cars
Firm's success hinges on whether it can develop battery to make car appealing to the masses.
Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

General Motors Corp. thinks it can clear technological hurdles involved in creating a plug-in electric car for the mass market.

Now the forces behind GM's Chevy Volt and other environmentally minded vehicles are going all out to make sure the vehicle's visual appeal matches its high-tech allure.

"GM is once more a design-driven company, so it's only natural that design keep pace with the engineering development of the E-flex system," Vice Chairman Bob Lutz recently wrote in a blog on GM's Web site.

E-Flex is the powertrain system behind a new generation of electrically driven vehicles GM hopes to build by the end of the decade.

The system matches battery power with several different energy sources. GM's success hinges on whether it can develop a lithium ion battery with the endurance, durability and affordability to make the car appealing to average consumers.

While hundreds of engineers and a number of battery suppliers tackle that job, Lutz says GM's top designers will dig in as well.

The automaker has opened a design studio within its Warren Technical Center campus to fine-tune the design of the Volt and vehicles built on the same architecture.

Bob Boniface, GM director of advanced design, will head up design work on the Volt. He was lead designer for the Chevy Camaro concept vehicle and the hydrogen fuel cell Sequel concept vehicle.

Boniface also worked for DaimlerChrysler's Advanced Product Design Studio, overseeing the architectural design of the popular stow-and-go seating for Chrysler minivans.

Lutz said exterior styling of the Volt is 90 percent complete and will include all the key design cues of the Volt concept GM showed off in January at the North American International Auto Show.

The Volt's front end, with its brawny face, wide bumper and narrow headlights separated by the narrow dual port grille, will be slightly less dramatic, he said, to accommodate safety regulations while fitting with GM's global architecture for small cars.

"This vehicle is so important that it is getting maximum attention from all of the top Product Development leadership and from the senior people in powertrain," Lutz told The Detroit News.

A Volt leadership team meets every two weeks to hammer out glitches and keep up momentum on the project, he said.

The steps aren't unusual in the course of bringing a new vehicle to market. The level of detail GM is making public, however, is atypical. The automaker's strategy aims to cultivate an Earth-friendly image at a time when the environment is a hot-button issue, while discrediting critics who have dismissed the Volt as a publicity stunt.

Lutz said last month that GM had probably spent "at this point" $100 million, "but ramping up very fast as it becomes a high-priority product for launch in '10."

GM has spent about $4 billion on advanced propulsion budget the past five or six years, he said.

GM must walk a fine line in designing the Volt, said Rebecca Lindland, a Global Insight analyst in Lexington, Mass. History has shown that hybrid vehicle buyers gravitate toward distinct vehicles. Toyota Motor Corp.'s hot-selling hybrid Prius, for example, looks unlike any other vehicle on the road. It's outselling Toyota's hybrid Camry, indistinguishable from the traditional Camry except for a badge on the rear, more than three to one this year.

The Volt won't succeed unless it is visually appealing, Lindland said. Lutz has repeatedly promised that the Volt won't "look like a science experiment."

Hybrid buyers, Lindland said, "really want people to know what good people they are."

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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