Chrysler pins hopes on Envi

- In this, the worst U.S. automotive market in more than 25 years, with layoffs and plant closings and endless talk of bankruptcies, you might think no one in Detroit is focused on anything except surviving one more day.

But in the automotive industry, you have to plan products years and years in advance if you're to have any hope of being around in the longer term.

Another reason for doing advanced product planning today is to have some 21st-century cars to show governments when you're looking for bailouts.

Chrysler realized that and had to scramble to catch up to General Motors' much-publicized head start in the development of electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt.

A little over a year ago, Chrysler threw together an Envi Organization (that's for environment, not envy) that was told to develop some electric vehicles (EVs) and do it fast.

The Envi engineers surprised everyone by producing three different road-ready test vehicles in record time — a Jeep, a Dodge and a Chrysler.

The biggest is a Town & Country seven-passenger minivan with all the bells and whistles that will give you 40 miles on a 1-1/2-buck electric fill-up.

Michael Vaughan speaks to Doug Quigley, engineering executive director of Chrysler's Envi team, about building an electric minivan for now, and planning for the "Generation Two" model.

Doug Quigley is the engineering executive director of the Envi team.

Vaughan: You had to work fast. How did you decide what to build?

Quigley: We decided what it wouldn't be and that is something that compromises the package.

For this one, we wouldn't say you can't put seven people in there and we wouldn't say you have to take out the amenities you expect in a minivan ? this still has them all.

And it's going to perform as well as any minivan we've ever made.

In this case, we've got a 190-kilowatt drive motor, that's 270 horsepower, and it drives as well or better than a normal minivan.

Vaughan: Okay, how?

We kept all the seats, but we took out the tubs under the second row that the seats used to fold into. Now that's a 40-mile lithium pack.

We then took the V-6 with the transaxle out and replaced it with the 190-kilowatt motor with a single gear ratio, so there's no transmission.

We replaced the engine transaxle with an APU (auxiliary power unit) that is a 1.6-litre gasoline engine that will never power the road — it's strictly a generator.

The car is always running on battery. Forty miles later, you get home, plug it in and you haven't used any gas.

If you're out on the road and you go more than 40 miles, the generator kicks in to charge the battery. You've got a 10-gallon fuel tank and that'll take you another 360 miles.

Vaughan: It's a minivan Volt.

It's a minivan EV, but the technology is similar.

All range-extended electric vehicles have an APU.

Eighty per cent of the people in the United States are driving less than 40 miles a day. So if I own this, I'm never likely to run that engine (the APU) unless I take a trip on the weekend.

I've already got a small fleet and I'm driving them around ? and I don't know if you've driven a Chevy Volt yet.

We have been doing this for more than a couple of months; we've just been under the radar.

Vaughan: Is that the way to go, to retrofit old gasoline-powered vehicles rather than start with a clean piece of paper to design an EV?


And if we had our druthers, which we don't have, we'd say, let's just step back and make a whole new purpose-built platform and do this with all the key efficiencies you'll have to have.

Right now for me, that's Generation Two.

Gen One is get it out there, get it in people's hands, prove it works and let people try them out. That is speed to market.

What Chrysler has historically been good at is speed to market. These Envi vehicles are proof of it.

Vaughan: I want to say this delicately, but I thought Chrysler was broke.

It takes money to develop a vehicle, but we're committed to it, and [Chrysler chairman and chief executive officer Bob] Nardelli has been 100-per-cent behind us since the day this group was created in 2007.

Vaughan: I thought batteries were a moving target. How can you decide what batteries to lock in?

Batteries are a moving target.

But this is also the first time in this country's history that we have an electric vehicle that's actually viable.

You had electric cars before gas cars showed up and they work ? there's no mystery there. But what we haven't had is an energy source that's as capable as lithium ion appears to be and as safe, and that's something new.

Lead acid batteries are well known. But lithium ion is a different chemistry; it's a different construction.

The biggest challenge we've had for the last two years has been to figure out what's out there and what's real and bring it to market.

That has been a focus of our effort. Without telling you where we've gone, where we are and where we're going, I think we have our hands around it enough to say, yes, it's viable and we can make this work.

Vaughan: You have a partner for the lithium?

We have several of them. There are a lot of opportunities.

Physics is physics. Every pack I look at has a different advantage and a different potential disadvantage. You just have to go and study it and figure out if it's appropriate.

I may find, as I have, that this pack with this chemistry is better for a small car and another one is better for a large car with a lot of energy required. The bigger the pack, the more the energy, they actually tend to run cooler.

We've learned a lot in the last couple of years.

If you went out to look for lithium cells a couple of years ago, there were a couple of people out there. Look around you today, they're everywhere. But you've got to make sure that they're qualified and really do have an appropriate product.

The field is growing by the day and we've chosen a few key partners.

Vaughan: Are you finding electric vehicles are better as small cars or large cars?

We're finding they all have problems. If it were easy, someone would have done it already.

It's really just validation, making sure that even if people do crazy things with them they still work.

Hot weather, cold weather, high speed, all the stuff. That means getting vehicles on the road and getting miles on them and we're doing that as fast as we can.

We have a number of versions of the three vehicles running around — all still internal, of course. We will be bringing one of the vehicles to the market at the end of 2009 and the other two the year after.

The first vehicles will be a control fleet. I don't expect to come out with Car One and just put them on the dealers' showroom floor.

The initial volume we want to keep with a select user and understand likes, dislikes, wants, needs because I want to get full-time feedback from that first X-hundred. We want them as delivery vehicles, service vehicles ? where there are a lot of miles.

Vaughan: Last question: can you get rid of the APU and go fully, exclusively electric?


If the lithium pack density does continue to improve in energy and does continue to decrease in cost, then you could easily see a day when I don't even need the APU. And with that you'd get rapid-charge technologies and charging stations around as people got used to them.

We're putting lithium ion on the road now. But we're also looking at lithium sodium.

We have this joint study going on with GE, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, that's exploring what are the possibilities of a dual battery and, in this case, it's lithium sodium.

The opportunity there is getting the same amount of energy I'd get in an all-lithium pack in a smaller, lighter, cheaper box.


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