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The Chevy Volt is a Paradigm Shift that will do the same thing to conventional cars that digital photography did to chemical photography. It is a once-in-a-century development.
Like all electric cars, the real story is the battery. For the first time, thanks to nanotechnology, there actually is a battery that stores enough energy to power a mid-sized vehicle for 40 miles at highway speed and highway acceleration. After that, an onboard gasoline engine’s only purpose is to power an electric generator to recharge that battery. From that point on, the car achieves 50 mpg.
The hybrids on the market today, such as the Prius, can be thought of as “parallel hybrids,” because the electric and gasoline engines work in parallel. Both the electric engine and the gas engine directly power the wheels of the car. This means two drive trains, a very wasteful proposition.
The VOLT, on the other hand, can be considered a “series hybrid” because the gas engine powers the generator, which recharges the battery, which powers the electric motor that moves the car. The gas engine, generator, battery, electric motor and the wheels are hooked up in series – one pathway, not two.
That means a lot less weight, fewer moving parts and a lot less complexity. And, unlike conventional gasoline cars and parallel hybrids, the gasoline related mechanisms are segregated from the rest of the vehicle, which essentially an all-electric vehicle. The messy, troublesome, environmentally dangerous gasoline-based systems are isolated to a small section of the vehicle where they can cause less difficulty and be more easily managed.
Since most people drive 40 or fewer miles a day - MOST PEOPLE WILL NEED TO BUY NO GAS AT ALL! Simply plug the car into an electric outlet, and it recharges overnight, when most electric utilities have vast excess capacity. Even with today's reduced gas prices, the cost-per-mile will be vastly lower for those 40 miles. And unlike the ill-fated EV-1, the VOLT will not rely solely on the energy initially stored in the battery, severely limiting range.
The basic anatomy of the vehicle is called the E-flex platform, and it evokes a 1980's minicomputer in that there is a basic "bus-structure" to build components around, and it is not quite predictable which component will develop at what speed. For now, for longer trips the car is designed to hold enough gas that the car can cruise at a range equivalent to a conventional vehicle without needing a refill. The gas engine, as it is further developed, can be super-efficient because it only has to revolve at one speed and needs none of the versatility of the engine that powers your present car. It is said that there will be no fuel cell in the immediate future, because they are just too expensive for now.
Battery development should really take off with all the extra money that will become available to researchers once this project takes off and more money is made available to them. The same nanotechnology that is making the battery possible will also lead to breakthroughs in solar technology, and suburban/rural owners will eventually be able to recharge without even taping into the national power-grid. As these individuals sell there own surplus power to their power companies, that national grid itself will evolve into a new, decentralized form similar to the internet; not at all like the top-down entity that it now is.
It is really unpredictable which will develop first; inexpensive fuel cells or batteries that can hold so much energy that no fuel cell or gasoline-based electric generation system is needed. Our old minicomputer builders didn’t know whether CPUs, memories, mass-storage or software would progress most swiftly, either. But in either case, the modular E-flex platform will exploit the improvements as they become available.
As stated earlier, it is the nanotech-based battery that makes all this possible. The integrated circuit was made possible by the huge amounts of money invested in its development by the military because the military needed IC’s. Nanotech will come of age because of our need for fuel efficient, environmentally friendly transportation. Vast new industries will come into being when engineers are able to build structures, literally, atom by atom. We are on the first wave of the biggest technological frontier of this generation, and as usual the US has one leg up on the rest of the world. We must not drop the ball.