How Electric Car Labs Work

Manufacturer EV Labs
If GM can deliver on its promise, the Chevy Volt could bring electric cars to the masses by 2010.
If GM can deliver on its promise, the Chevy Volt could bring electric cars to the masses by 2010.
Kristen Hall-Geisler


While universities are scrutinizing electric vehicles in search of potential problems, including issues with power sources, batteries, and lifespan costs, auto manufacturers are also researching EV technology to effectively build and sell these cars to everyday drivers.

Before an EV can be introduced to the public, it has to be fully tested in the lab and on the track. The batteries have to be reliable and safe, the car has to perform to consumer and manufacturer standards, and it all has to be delivered at a reasonable price. That's a tall order, but almost every major manufacturer is working on it in their labs. In fact, you may have heard about the creation process for the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV). GM has poured all of its engineering, design, and marketing power into this car since its introduction as a concept car at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show.

Most of the concept cars that get attention at auto shows can't actually be driven, and few of them make it to production. However, GM promised to deliver the Chevy Volt by 2010, which shifted its labs into overdrive. First, they had to devise a safe and workable power train. The Volt will be powered by lithium-ion batteries and will have a small gasoline engine (or an E85 engine built for an ethanol-gasoline mix) that will kick in to recharge the batteries after about 40 miles (64 kilometers) of all-electric driving.

Sometimes, even when the company is large and the product important, it's easier, faster and cheaper to outsource product research and development than to reinvent the wheel in your own lab. As an example, GM decided to get the batteries for the Volt from another company. After searching for months, the company settled on lithium-ion batteries from LG.

Other companies simply want to control as many parts as possible and are willing to invest in the labs needed to create them. Nissan is just one auto manufacturer that has its own on-site battery lab in Japan, which is currently researching power sources for its future electric vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles. Engineers work with smaller, prototype versions of the full-sized lithium-ion car batteries to determine their capacity to store energy. They use these smaller prototypes to assess the safety of various materials used to create the electrical reactions that power the car.

Not all of the innovative work on EVs is being done in large university or corporate labs, though. Next, we'll talk about a few of the small businesses and adventurous enthusiasts experimenting in labs and garages.