Chrysler’s Lou Rhodes Divulges Electric Car Plans to CNNMoney
By Chris Haak
CNNMoney scored an exclusive interview with Lou Rhodes, Chrysler’s vice president for advanced vehicle engineering and president of Chrysler’s ENVI subsidiary, which was the team that rolled out the three environmentally-friendly electric vehicle concepts at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The article shed some heretofore specific information about Chrysler’s short- and medium-term plans for selling electric vehicles.
Chrysler surprised many of us a few weeks ago when it showcased three electric vehicles – a minivan, a Jeep Wrangler, and a Lotus Europa-based sports car – and said that it would put at least one of the three into production. Also interesting was that the Jeep and minivan were plug-in EVs like the Chevy Volt will be, and match the Volt’s 40-mile electric-only range, but in a far heavier package with far less sophisticated aerodynamics (or, in the case of the Jeep, an utter lack of aerodynamics). According to Rhodes, Chrysler accomplishes this by using larger battery packs than the Volt does (27 KWh in the Jeep, versus 16 KWh in the Volt, for example).
Unlike with the Volt, which will be mostly exclusive technology to that vehicle (plus perhaps a select few others, such as the Opel/Saturn FlexTreme and possibly a future Cadillac, Chrysler intends to democratize its electrification of the motor vehicle, offering nearly all of its models in both electric and gasoline-powered variants. The motors will be the same external size regardless of whether the vehicle is small or large, but will have different internal components to make them more or less powerful as necessary, as well as different sizes of battery packs depending upon power needs, but the individual batteries that make up the packs will be the same in every vehicle, except that some vehicles will have more or less cells in the pack than others. The benefit of this strategy will be economies of scale and simplicity in engineering, which will probably make the EV cost premium for Chrysler’s EVs much smaller than GM’s approximate 100% markup from a $20,000 Cruze to a $40,000 Volt (excluding tax credits, of course).
Chrysler will then divert more production toward EVs if gas prices are high, and more production toward gasoline powered versions of the same vehicles if gasoline prices are low. The company is hoping to have the flexibility to pull off those fast production changes.
Stage two of Chrysler’s EV strategy occurs with the next generation of vehicles, in the 2012 to 2015 timeframe. Vehicles being designed now for launch in those years will feature alternative floorpans depending upon whether the vehicle will be electrically powered or powered by an internal combustion engine. For example, a gasoline Dodge Challenger needs a large driveline tunnel under the floor, but an electric version of the same car would not (though that sure would seem to be a good spot to stow some batteries – and it’s low to the ground, helping the car’s center of gravity). The electric and gasoline versions of the same car built in the same factory would have the flexibility to change the propulsion method engineered into the platform from the start, making compromises such as sacrificing half of the trunk space for battery packs possibly unnecessary.
Chrysler really appears to be trying hard to not only shed its image as a seller of nothing but gas-guzzling Hemis and trucks, which is probably a great idea on its part, both in light of the fact that its fate hangs in the balance depending upon what President Bush decides to do about granting a short-term bridge loan and for the fact that its truck-heavy lineup (with some subpar cars sprinkled in for good measure) is not very compelling to consumers in an era of declining oil availability. The name of the game is perception, and if Chrysler can roll out an entire lineup of cars that doesn’t need gasoline, then they’ll go a long way toward shedding that fuel-swilling image.
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