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Book chronicles story of how Volt was born

General Motors has twice killed the electric car. The first time it happened was when GM’s Charles F. Kettering invented an electric starter for internal combustion engines.

That one device, installed on a Cadillac in 1913, helped put the nail in the coffin of almost every electric automaker building battery-powered cars at the time. Kettering’s starter helped pave the way for the gasoline combustion engine to become the main mode of power for an automobile.

The second time GM killed the electric car was when, in the late 1990s, the company called back every battery-powered EV1 from its leasing customers and destroyed the vehicles. This story is, of course, well documented in the 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? directed by Chris Paine.

So, GM’s resurrection of the electric automobile proves interesting — as witnessed by the commercial production of the Volt.

Chevrolet Volt: Charging Into the Future is a new book written by Larry Edsall, the former editor of AutoWeek. Officially licensed by GM and published by Motorbooks, Chevrolet Volt (ISBN: 978-0-7603-3893-3) offers a glimpse behind the scenes into the development of what some believe is the most important car to come out of Detroit in years.

The Volt was recently named Motor Trend’s 2011 Car of the Year and Automobile Magazine’s 2011 Automobile of the Year.

Whether it truly is the most important car or not remains to be seen, but Edsall takes readers deep into the inner workings of GM, with in-depth interviews with every major player who had a hand in developing the Volt.

Edsall begins with Bob Lutz. In January 2006 Lutz, who was chairman of GM at the time, had just debuted to some critical acclaim the concept Camaro at the North American International Auto Show. He decided to follow up the Camaro with an electric car — and told GM as much.

The timeline, though, was tight. He wanted a concept electric vehicle to have on the GM stand in 2007 — exactly one year away.

From the edict put down by Lutz, Edsall introduces one of the other key proponents of the Volt, a vehicle that had originally been called the iCar.

While Lutz wanted an electric car powered by batteries, it was engineer Jon Lauckner (he was GM vice-president of Global Program Management in the mid-2000s, and is now GM vice-president and president) who suggested what would become the Volt’s intriguing powertrain.

The car is powered by batteries, which energize an electric motor to drive the wheels. Battery power is replenished by plugging a cord from the car into either a 110-volt or 220-volt standard household outlet, and the Volt has a range of some 64 kilometres before the charge fades.

At that point, a small four-cylinder gasoline engine fires up and powers an on-board generator, a device that will recharge the lithium-ion battery on the fly.

GM calls the generator a ‘range extender.’ Of course, when Lauckner was explaining the range extender, no one really knew how it would all work.

That’s where Edsall shares many of the unknown insights, from GM’s creation of the concept drawings to engineering the drive system. He leaves no stone unturned, and GM seems to have given him unfettered access to their photographic archives to illustrate all 144 pages of Chevrolet Volt.

Range anxiety — or the worry that an electric car would run out of juice before a driver got to where they wanted to go — was the reason GM went with the onboard generator. Detractors of the Volt criticize GM for not building a fully electric only vehicle — but at no time does the gasoline engine ever have a direct connection with the drive wheels. That part is all electric. And, ostensibly, if a driver never went further than 64 km, the gasoline engine would never start or run. Edsall does address some questions about how the Volt logistically will function when it is parked in the family garage when he finally puts the car through its paces in a test drive. That test drive forms the last chapter in the book.

While the Volt entered production in November 2010, those living on the Canadian Prairies will have to wait before they can buy one. The Volt will first be on sale in the second half of 2011 in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Oshawa, Ottawa-Gatineau, Vancouver and Victoria. The Prairies, presumably, will see the Volt at a later date — possibly some time in 2012.

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