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The People Behind the Volt

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The Wired Autopia Volt Challenge advertised that winners would get an opportunity to fly to Detroit to test drive the Volt.  I found out that the experience would be far more than just that.  Sitting down face to face with the very people that had poured their hearts and souls into this car was the difference between front row seats at a concert and a private performance.  It has much deeper meaning, the car is no longer just a car – but it is the embodiment of the effort of hundreds of people all with unique skills and perspectives united by a common goal. This unbridled passion to make it happen I think is a representation of the American Spirit as it exists today.  Here are my perspectives on a snapshot of the people I met who could say “I worked on the Volt”.

Check out the rest of the Chevy Volt Detroit Experience here.

No Photography was allowed while we were at the Warren Technical Center, so you’ll just have to work off my written account!

On Designers

The first thing I thought when I walked into the Design Center at the GM Vehicle Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan was that it seemed a little different than the rest of the buildings.  The reflecting pool, modern furniture, and brand new GMC Granite show car all but declared “Beware of Artists!”   

After clearing the proper security procedures, we were met by two particularly fashionable and aesthetically astute individuals, Tim Greig and Young Kim – respectively the interior and exterior design managers for the Chevrolet Volt.  Even before we sat down and started talking about the Volt, I got the feeling that these two lived with a passion for unbounded aesthetic creativity. 

After the introductions were made, we settled into a design room of sorts, and we were surrounded by Volt design concepts.  You can actually see several photos and examples on ChevroletVoltage.com.  I’ll be honest, before speaking with the Volt designers, I thought that all designers did was to sketch concept art and work on clay models.  But I found out that their work extended far beyond that – and it needed to for a car as integrated and sophisticated as the Volt.  Young described the iterative process between himself and the aerodynamicist in the wind tunnel and the ongoing struggle between design and engineering.  Oddly enough what we think may be sleek and sporty is often not what the best in the wind tunnel.

On the inside, Tim showed us interior concepts for the Volt, and discussed how the earliest renditions of the Volt did not include a standard shifting lever.  (They thought originally that all you needed was forward, reverse and maybe neutral).  But because of engineering constraints (a safety interlock to keep the car from rolling when in park) it didn’t make engineering sense to remove the shifter and make it completely electronic.  The challenges they described really brought home what it means to have an aesthetic “concept” and how much effort it takes to make that concept a reality (we live in the real world after all).

Walking out of the design center, I’ll never go back to thinking that a car as strictly an engineering project.  Design is what makes a car more than four wheels and an engine.  Meeting the people that gave the character and personality to the Volt gave it a depth I had not seen before.

On Battery Specialists

We had an opportunity to visit the battery lab at Warren Technical center.  Inside was a full-fledged battery lab.  What’s in a battery lab you might ask?  Well one way to put it is that it was a lab filled with 24 different environmental chambers that they placed battery packs in to test their performance and durability.  The idea is to simulate over 10 years of use in a 2 year timeframe.  The chambers were labeled to represent the climatic area they were intended to simulate for example – hot and dry, hot and humid, mild temperate etc, each correlating with a portion of the US that may be encounter by the Volt. 

You might ask what there was to see there, other than that – but really there wasn’t anything flashy.  No Volt artwork, no parts – other than many battery packs and cells in various states of assembly.  All the magic happened as part of a deeper experiment.  The battery engineering and research may not be flashy or glamorous, but it is vital work on the most critical component to the Volt and other future electric vehicles.

The people working in the battery lab reflected this.  They were very deeply interested in their work, though the manifestation of it could only be described in gigabytes of data being generated everyday as the batteries were cycled repeatedly, and inputs from hundred of sensors aggregated.  There is a quiet diligence and quiet passion to their research and study – that is something to respect.

On the People on the Line at Detroit Hamtramck

GM is serious about the Volt.  I make that statement confidently now having seen the inside of Detroit Hamtramck.  I’ve heard the Naysayers saying it will be killed like EV1.  But I would now ask them to explain to me how that could be when a factory has been tooled up specifically to build the Volt.  What does it mean to be tooled up?  It means millions of dollars in special line equipment, and hundreds of hours training the people who will be assembling the Volt on the Detroit Hamtramck line.

One thing that struck me about the people was the fact that they actually seemed to enjoy their work.  And that work includes everything from assembly, to paint, to the validation and testing drives that each and every vehicle receives.  As we drove around the factory floor, there was often a friendly wave, a pleasant smile, and a jovial atmosphere.  It’s comforting to know now that the Volt I’ll ultimately drive was built with pride.

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