A GM CEO And A GM Chief Engineer Weigh In On What’s Next For The Volt And Its Tech

I recently got a chance to speak with Andrew Farah, chief engineer for the Chevrolet Volt. While getting keyed in on the enormous amounts of controls and tech that went into Volt, he mentioned that he had already been chosen as chief engineer for the next EV at GM, stating that, “[my bosses] figured that I had already made mistakes, so I won’t make them again.”

Farah, is a very enthusiastic and charismatic engineer, and in fact, reminded me of Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally. When I asked him what’s up next, he said that “..battery technology will have to get better and smaller..it’s a big energy balance and controls game.”

So, what exactly is he working on? We know that GM displayed a Volt MPV concept in Beijing; and this week at the Detroit auto show, GM CEO Dan Ackerson, told us they have solid plans to launch the MPV. Also, Ackerson said that the Cadillac SRX, we heard about, is “likely.” And, also mentioned, the possibility of a small hatchback and crossover EREV. Could Farah be on one of those teams?

Right now, many people think that the Volt it just too expensive, and in response GM is looking to lower costs. The first way to lower the cost is to shrink the battery, and to do that, engineers will have to increase the energy density of the battery cells. Tough task, I know. However, GM thinks it has the solution.

By licensing battery-electrode materials from the Argonne National Lab, part of the DOE, GM thinks they can double energy storage and therefore halving battery size. By using new materials called mixed-metal oxides, in the electrodes — the cells still come from the rare earth metal, lithium — engineers think they can double capacity.

What’s interesting here is that more vehicles are adopting the Voltec’s powertrain. The Volt was obviously a test of consumer interest — initial Volt production numbers estimated between 10 and 15,000 units are now nearly 25,000, Ackerson says. With only 326 sold in December, they might really have to push it although GM-Volt.com notes that at the end of 2010, there were 90 unsold Volts sitting in dealer’s lots. The Volt’s retail launch was held up until the EPA released the vehicle’s fuel economy numbers, which didn’t happen until the end of November with the first Volts being delivered in mid-December.

While the very next challenge engineers face is lowering the costs — the Volt isn’t profitable, even at $41,000 — what’s next after are new cars based on Voltec. When exactly? “Within three years,” said the CEO. I’m pretty sure we need them sooner.