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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Chevy Volt: A Geek Perspective

On November 2nd 2010, my good friend Wayne Sutton and I met at the Crabtree Courtyard by Marriott before daylight. We were there to meet Dan Nguy (GM Electric Engine Engineer - say that 3 times fast!) and the rest of the GM team to test drive their new Volt electric vehicle at 6AM. Our trip would take us from Raleigh North Carolina to Richmond Virginia. We were both a bit tired. The Volt Unplugged tour team looked a bit haggard as well. They had been working hard all day Monday, talking about the Volt and offering test drives to curious Raleigh and Durham residents and workers, with tour stops downtown at the City Municipal Complex, Progress Energy and IBM's campus at Research Triangle Park (my video). The day was topped off by a "Chevy Social" hosted by the two of us at Designbox and Cherry Bomb Grill in Raleigh for more test drives and conversation with the Triangle social geeks and four Chevy Volt cars.

This is the Chevy Volt Wayne and I drove on the Raleigh to Richmond unplugged tour drive leg
Time to hit the road. Fueled by adrenaline and caffeine, we were set to jump behind the wheel. One small hiccup, the charging cable to our Volt had somehow become dislodged overnight and the car had only been charging about a half hour. Cue the dramatic Back to the Future music! What were we going to do? How were we going to make it to Richmond to pass the keys, er flob, to the next set of eager EV drivers traveling to the big tour stop in DC? How were we going save the day and share our awesome geek experience with you and the rest of teh internetz?!1? Oh noes. Insert dramatic chipmonk video. Voice over: Tune in next time for the dramatic conclusion to find out if our heroes drive places in "Electric Avenue 2: The Electric Vehicle Boogaloo." I am being a bit dramatic with the faux suspense TV serial style.

This car got me thinking. Thinking about not just the future but the past. The past when we're were envisioning the future. Stay with me here, as I travel back in time a bit. I take you back to a simpler time. The 1980s: the time of my childhood as a nerd growing up in the piedmont of North Carolina. Nerd was not a cool term in the 80s. Trust me, I was not the popular kid of the group. I was a geek but it was not a badge of awesome as it's is portrayed in pop culture and online today. I could not envision a world where The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows on TV. I was into all things sci-fi, I was a basement dwelling video game hermit, and I loved technology and gadgets. My grandmother would invite me over to "fix stuff" which meant construct, install or debug "modern" gizmos like TV remotes, VCRs and digital clocks. I could perform all this without the aide of obtuse instruction manuals! Brilliant. I was an engineer in the making in my family's eyes.

I was also obsessed with TV. I started watching serial action dramas at an early age. Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, Airwolf, The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Magnum P.I., Miami Vice. I was also a big movie guy. Star Wars, Bullitt, The French Connection, The Cannonball Run, Christine, The Road Warrior, Smokey and the Bandit, Batman, Back to the Future, heck ET. I was also into aircraft and can identify most military jets' make and model visually. This makes me realize there is something more to my fascination with the Chevy Volt than I initially understood. Many people have asked me "What do I get out of test driving the Volt?" - "Why are you doing this for GM?" Why did I spend my personal time to test drive the car that I can just read about in NY Times or watch the videos? Well, I get to drive the car. That's the reward. I am a techno geek. That's it. I like to take stuff apart and put it back together again. Nothing is better than figuring out the bits and bytes of gadgets yourself.

I realize now that I may not be a "motor head" but I am a real car geek. It's about the promise of those TV shows and movies. It's about the glimpse of what could be with movies that transport us to a different time or place. Remember the old Popular Mechanics magazines with the artist renderings of rocket-powered cars on the cover? Yeah, I wanted one of those. We should totally have those by like the year 2000, right?

There is a common element in so many these shows and films. Cool vehicles. Many feature GM cars doing amazing things. Fantastical fictional accounts of daring action, chock full of technobabble and celluloid stunts. Let's take a quick tour through the great vehicles from some of the most entertaining "chase" dramas.

First in 1977, Star Wars had the Landspeeder. It could float on air and zip along at break neck speeds and turn effortlessly. It was magic and cool. Geeks try to build Landspeeders. The Volt is very much like Luke's Landspeeder because when you are in the electric vehicle the feeling you have at low speed is "How is this moving?" There is no noise, jerking or hint of mechanical pull. It's like you are floating, and it is sublime. That's the magic of electric motors. The handling of the Volt is great and it cruises down the highway with impressive vigor.

Knight Rider was my favorite show in the early 80s. Michael Knight drove the first truly smart car. KITT featuring a talking AI computer, cool lasers and the always important Turbo Boost. How many times did the turbo boost save Michael and the victim of the week? That's right, every week. KITT was an awesome black Pontiac Trans-Am. The interior of the KITT car was decked out with every imaginable doo-hickey and gadget that an intrepid adventurer could need to solve crimes, analyze building structures, scan clues and fight the good fight. I wanted this car when I turned 16. The closest I came to seeing this technology in real life happened when my uncle bought the first new automobile in our extended family. He brought the new Pontiac 6000 over to my grandmother Edith's house for my cousins, siblings and I to marvel at the glowing red dashboard with the oh so cool LED speedometer and digital gauges. He told us kids it was cooler than "Darth Vader's Bathroom" due to some sort of joking resemblance of the Sith Lord's spherical office on that Super Star Destroyer in my favorite film, The Empire Strikes Back. We were very impressed at the time and imagined we were chasing rebel scrum through asteroid clusters. My cousins and I were skilled at mimicking laser blast sounds. The Volt interior is a more fully realized future than KITT and makes the Pontiac 6000 look like a cheap digital calculator watch. The dashboard has two large LCD screens with crystal clear display of intuitive controls over the energy systems. Voice guided navigation and it's user interface is improved with features to guide you to places along your trip. You instantly recognize the user interface with cascading menus similar to today's consumer tech personal devices like smart phones and tablets. You can manage your entire entertainment experience from the touch screen or master dial to control your smart phone or MP3 player, and the car will also import and cache music from your device. This is a marked improvement over the clunky interface of navigation / entertainment interfaces in cars like the Chevrolet Corvette. The tactile feel of the dashboard is both modern and futuristic because it is largely knob and push button free. Buttons are touch sensitive and integrated. There is a large master control dial and a "back" button. Very intuitive to the iPod generation. On*Star navigation routes are beamed directly into the car's screen. The drive shifter resembles something from a shuttle craft. A floating green orb on the driver display shows you real-time feedback from your acceleration and braking to help balance driving for optimal energy efficiency. The Volt also has a Sport mode to give some real push to the driving experience. Wayne and I first test drove a prototype Volt at SXSW in March and we tested the acceleration on a closed track. Let me say this, my head was pressed against the seat and Wayne's eyes got big. I imagined I was Michael Knight as I pressed the Volt "Turbo Boost" button for sport mode on that spring day in Austin!

The A-Team drove around in the classic Black GMC Van with red stripes and spoiler. The van driven by B.A. Baracus' was bad to the bone. It was a pivotal character in the show, and it couldn't be destroyed or stopped. Seriously, what van except this one can pull off a spoiler? I think this magic van spoiler must have helped the A-Team escape perilous situations when jumping through buildings and over barricades. Also did you notice, the van never ran out of gas. Did it have an electric engine from GM under the chassis? Probably. How else did it haul around the team of 4 rogue heroes plus rescued folks and heavy gear? This is another thing that impressed me. The Volt is roomy. My neighbor Jeff, a real car nut (I say this with respect) test drove the Volt at our Chevy Social on the evening of November 1st in Raleigh. He also coincidentally was lucky enough to test drive the GM EV1 back in the day. His comment about the car was that there was rarely a car these days that had a back seat with both enough leg room and head room for him as a tall man at 6' 4''. The Volt backseat is spacious enough for him to sit normally without the slope of the back window knocking the back of his head. The trunk is also decent for a sedan of the size. I snapped this photo of another Volt car chock full of gear on our tour drive to Richmond.

The list of futuristic GM super cars in TV and films goes on and on. Lee Majors AKA The Fall Guy drove a GMC pickup to perform his stunts (I had the lunchbox and thermos in elementary school). I'd venture a guess that the Duke boys were inspired by his aerial feats. The classic The French Connection car chase featured a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. The Bandit drove that super awesome '77 Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird. GM cars leave a mark. The classic Batmobile in the 1989 Tim Burton film was a Chevy Impala chassis, which in replicas sports a Corvette engine, not a 15 second burn jet turbine engine as in the film. Remember, "Chicks dig the car."

This brings us to the dramatic conclusion! Did we make it? Heck yeah!! Wayne, Dan and I had a awesome time and a very pleasant drive from Raleigh to Richmond early that Tuesday morning. The battery charge carried us out of town and then the gas engine kicked in for the highway road trip. And that is actually by design. This is a key part of the Volt technology, the electric engines are assisted by the gas engine to actually improve overall efficiency at highway speeds. There is never a fear about running out of charge with the new "range extending" capability. There was no crisis like in Back to the Future where we, the heroes of this incredible journey, scramble around for hours looking for extra power for our car of the future. The new Chevy Volt transports you with style with super geek tech and practical innovations. This car passes my geek dad test, the mom test and the kid test, making it a winner for families. So, you may ask what car my two sons want when they become drivers in a few years? The Volt is a cool car according to them, and they are also super excited about this classic Chevy Impala that actually looks like a rocket ship. My youngest son, age 8, wonders when Chevy will offer the Volt in bright metallic blue like the Corvette and if there will be "big screens" to play stuff in the backseat. Like father, like sons.

I want to extend a special thanks to Jennie Ecclestone, Chris Barger, Dan Nguy, Kevin Kelly, Phil Colley, Ashmi Haria, Trent Warnke and all the folks at GM and the Chevy Volt team! The opportunities I've had to drive the Volt this year were in a word: cool.

#VoltUnplugged drive @theRab and @WayneSutton arrive in Richmond

But wait, there is more! Consider the following your DVD extras. Here are car notes from our Volt Unplugged Tour drive and additional factoids contributed by my IBM UX colleague Patrick Nyeste, a true "car guy" and racing enthusiast.

First the headline quote/tweet worthy notes. The Volt subsystems contain more lines of code than F-35 fighter jet, the first space shuttle or the Boeing Dreamliner! Each volt has it's own IP address! Updates to the car's programming subsystems can be updated while the car is charging. IBM technology went into designing, testing and producing the car embedded systems.

Kevin Kelly, GM product manager, said there is a new solar array for charging Volt cars at the Detroit plant, in response to a question about green manufacturing. The Chevy Volt is assembled on a normal production line between the Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS. He shared that GM has created the only battery packing plant by any car line manufacturer in Brownstown, Michigan specifically for the Volt. The electrical plug use for the car is standardized across ASAM for the auto industry and is named the J-1772.

Progress Energy is one of the first GM partners to figure out grid management. This is a big deal and the roll-out is underway in the Southeast. There is a priority to charging station deployment: first are Home based chargers for Car owners, second will be stations "at work" around business campuses for employees who drive EVs, and then for hotels, retail and parking structures. Coulomb Tech is building charging stations for municipal and parking decks. The City of Raleigh is looking to the future as well. This November, Raleigh is installing the first two charging stations downtown at the City government complex and convention center.

Electric Engine Engineer Dan Nguy on the Volt project discussed how the internal systems are constantly recalculating adjustments to optimize battery charge and health. He says the driver can also help with charge efficiency by remembering "the three T's." There are three factors that influence range and battery life of the electric vehicle: Temperature, Terrain and Technique. Temperature is a factor primarily managed by the car's internal technology and the built-in cooling systems intending to keep the battery at a constant temperature for peak efficiency. It's important to remember as the driver that a lead foot on the brake petal is as bad as stomping on the accelerator. Brake pads not used in traditional way in this electric vehicle. Braking in a normal manner while driving recaptures electric charge for the battery. A good driver will be rewarded by extending the charge and perhaps never needing to worry about brake pad replacement.

Even more notes:
  • There are about 160 people on the Volt engineering team, including all the departments responsible for each component and system, and over 1000 people at GM have "touched it" - playing a part bringing it to market over the last few years.
  • Electric motor has 270+ ft/lbs of torque.
  • Chevy Volt car weighs 3700+ lbs.
  • This battery contains the same energy but is over 70% lighter than the first GM EV - the EV1.
  • The battery has a SOC (state of charge) range from 30 to 80%.
  • Batteries make a t-shape through the transmission tunnel and the top of the T is right underneath the passenger seats instead of all in the trunk.
  • This battery design helps with car stability and drivability.
  • Battery is lithium and can be charged with either 120V or 240V power outlets.
  • There are 3 charging modes, including one based on recharging during the lowest peak time of your electricity provider for maximum cost benefit.
  • The engine has various states of constant speeds based on electric motor load requirements
  • There are no gears!
  • There are 3 driving modes: Normal, Low and Sport
  • A small gasoline engine is used for hwy usage to increase fuel economy by 10%+, it is a Chevy Cruze motor 1.4L w/o the turbo.
  • 1400, 1800, 2800, 3600, 4800 rpm, and the car never gets to the rev-limiter.
  • There is just a planary connection from the engine to the wheels (for about 10% power for better hwy efficiency).
  • The electric motor has a 7:1 ratio for rpm (electric motor rpm : wheel rpm).
  • So the electric motor would be spinning too fast at hwy speeds and reduce efficiency.
  • For example, if the car is going up a hill in colorado, the motor would sit at 4800 rpm to juice the electric motor.
  • Otherwise it goes to quite a lower rpm mode usually.
  • The Volt has a distinct secondary horn to warn pedestrians at low speeds because of the quiet approach of an electric car. The driver pulls the stem to the left of the steering wheel to tweet to the outside world. I found it strangely satisfying to toot the "audible warning system" on the Volt.
  • You can lease a Volt for $350/month for 36 months w/ $2500 down. If you purchase a car, there are energy rebate incentives offered by Fed and local governments.
  • Almost all features come standard, with few options to pick.
  • Did you know the jet was a F-18 in that Volt video?
  • Suggestion: Needs integrated rear entertainment options for children and passengers.
See all of my photos from the Volt Unplugged tour drive as well as our test drive at SXSW in Austin Texas on Flickr. Wayne also has numerous photos.

Disclaimer: GM sponsored the Chevy Social for the Volt Unplugged Tour and Chevy SXSW Road Trip.


Dan Griffin said...

Nice post. I hate that I was out of town when they brought the volt through RTP.

Bob said...

It all seems nice, but eliminate the BS from the article and give us what your Mileage was on the trip! That real and the info a buyer would need. How can you build a car that weighs that much and Premim fuel...come on!I hate to say it but the Toyota is nearly half the price and much better mileage. You guys didn't do your job, what happen? I bleed GM, but can't hang on but so long!!!

Ryan Boyles said...

"Bob" I would not normally respond to such a rude person. In this case, I will tell you simply that our mileage averaged about 37 MPG on the highway. You can see more information from my photographs and videos from the trip. This single measurement does not speak to the energy, environment and cost savings that you will enjoy as a Volt driver. I do not work for GM, I am just telling you about my brief time with this car. It is a technical marvel. I'm not here to compare it to Nissan or some other vehicle that I do not have experience with. I can tell you firsthand, the Chevy Volt is a great car based on my time driving it and the innovations under the hood. Motor Trend just awarded the Chevy Volt their 2011 Car of the Year Award today, and called it the most significant in history. Read more http://www.motortrend.com/oftheyear/car/1101_2011_motor_trend_car_of_the_year_chevrolet_volt/index.html