TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan (Reuters) - General Motors Corp. will begin road testing its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid in the spring of next year and remains on track to produce the rechargeable car by late 2010, a senior executive said on Thursday.
As the race to bring a mass-market, rechargeable electric vehicle to the market heats up, GM’s global product chief Bob Lutz said he expects to have next-generation lithium-ion battery packs ready for the vehicles by October this year.
“We should have the battery packs by October,” he said, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an industry conference. “We’ll have some on the road for testing next spring, and we should have the Volt in production by the end of 2010.”
GM is the only automaker to have provided a timeline on the production of a plug-in hybrid vehicle, even though other companies, such as Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are working on similar technology.
Automakers have said lithium-ion battery technology remains the biggest challenge in producing a plug-in vehicle as they try to lower the cost of the batteries and increase their power and storage capacity.
The current generation of lithium-ion batteries, used in devices such as laptop computers and electronic devices, also has a tendency to overheat.
The Volt would be outfitted with new lithium-ion battery packs, which hold a charge longer than the nickel metal hydride batteries now used widely in automobiles.
“The cost of the battery would likely be high even at the time of production,” Lutz said, adding that GM is exploring options that would allow consumers to lease the battery when buying the vehicle in order to bring down the sticker price.
Unlike earlier gasoline-electric hybrids, which run on a parallel system twinning battery power and a combustion engine, plug-in cars are designed to allow short trips powered entirely by the electric motor, using a battery that can be charged through an electric socket at home.
GM is designing the highly-anticipated Volt to run 40 miles on battery power alone, reducing or even eliminating the need for drivers to fuel up an on-board gasoline-powered engine provided as a backup power source.
Lutz said GM is requiring a 10-year life for the battery, and said the No. 1 U.S. automaker would look to price the vehicle like a “traditional mid-market car.”
GM is racing rival Toyota to offer the first mass-market electric vehicle. Toyota last month unveiled a “plug-in” car based on its popular Prius hybrid model, saying it would test the fuel-saving vehicle on public roads — a first for the industry.
But Toyota said the car, called the Toyota Plug-in HV, is not fit for commercialization because it uses low-energy nickel-metal hydride batteries instead of lithium-ion batteries, believed to be a better fit for rechargeable plug-in cars.
Environmental advocates have been pressing automakers to roll out plug-in vehicles that could be recharged at standard electric outlets as a way to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.
In June, GM announced contracts with two companies — a subsidiary of South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd. called Compact Power Inc. and Germany’s Continental AG to work on parallel battery development programs for the Volt.
On Thursday, GM announced another contract with A123 Systems, which has been working with Continental on battery technology.
GM said both Compact Power and A123 could end up providing the batteries for the Volt, or only one of them might meet the automaker’s requirements.