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Carolyn Presutti | Detroit, Michigan 30 July 2010
Photo: General Motors
The new gasoline/electric hybrid Chevrolet Volt
Today President Obama visits a U.S. auto plant that makes the battery-powered Chevrolet Volt. Some analysts think the Volt could revitalize the struggling American auto industry with its high-tech battery component and environmentally friendly power source.
Ed LeBlanc drives a 2004 Chevrolet Impala. But his dream is to someday drive what he builds - the new Chevrolet Volt, an electric vehicle that can run for 64 kilometers on a battery without recharging. His round-trip commute to work is less than that.
"I wouldn't have to put a dime of gas in this ever," notes LeBlanc.
The assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan where LeBlanc works has already built about 55 test vehicles.
Dealers in select parts of the country began taking orders for the Volts on Tuesday. The $41,00 price tag comes with a $7,500r tax credit, making it cost competitive with other electric or hybrid vehicles.
But here's the difference, fully charged, the battery in the volt enables the car to travel for 64 kilometers on electrical power alone. Then, the car automatically switches to a gas-powered engine, acting as a generator that can power through 483 more kilometers.
"For Americans, we're getting off foreign oil. For any customer around the world, they're getting off oil, so that's a big part of it," said GM's Larry Nitz.
General Motors was the first auto company in the United States to mass produce a modern electric car. The EV-1 was on the market in the 1990s, but GM discontinued it because of impracticality. Company engineers admit the lead acid battery wasn't technically advanced enough to run a car.
The EV-1's battery weighed three times as much as the Volt's does today. Because of its size, the car had to be designed and built around the battery.
Here at the GM battery lab, the Volt's 16 kilowatt lithium ion batteries are run through the rigors of extreme driving, weather fluctuations and abrupt movements. Developers promise the batteries will have a long life.
"By using only a part of that battery, we're able to ensure that the battery lives 10 years," noted Nitz.
Critics argue the price of a Volt is higher than a regular small compact car and the gas savings won't offset that cost. Others say the back seat is small. The T-shaped top of the battery rests underneath the seat, with the longer strip under the center console.
GM is staking a lot on the Volt's success. The auto company shut down most of its facilities for the summer, but the Hamtramck assembly plant remained open, for employees like Leblanc to get the Volt rolling.
"It's our lifesaver. I mean, it keeps us working," added LeBlanc.
GM is investing $700 million into the vehicle. A company manager tells VOA that GM expects to lose money initially, but hopes to make the Volt profitable in future years.