With Geely Cheerleading, Volvo is Expanding EV Program to the U.S. and China

Last Updated Nov 9, 2010 6:56 PM EST

Thanks in part to great enthusiasm on the part of new parent company Geely, Volvo is plugging in with a more ambitious electrification plan. China has the most aggressive EV program in the world right now, and could lead the way to mass adoption with large government subsidies. It's pushing Volvo to expand the reach of its modestly conceived electric C30.

Volvo had originally planned to confine its electric car program to northern Europe, but is now convinced that it should bring test fleets of C30 EVs into California and China. Vice President of Business Development Paul Gustavsson also reveals that Volvo's plug-in hybrid (to be built in China) will be a diesel in Europe, and that the company is getting involved in fuel cells with a unique approach. Its cars will carry a tank of biodiesel, and then convert that to hydrogen onboard the car with a chemical reformer.

Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby was a late convert to EVs at Volkswagen, announcing an aggressive hybrid program (starting with the Jetta) just before he left for Volvo. Now he's citing Volvo's "exciting expansion of our focus on electrification."

Geely is not a player in EVs now, but it has prototypes, and "very much encouraging us to be in that space," Gustavsson said. Volvo's battery EV program already has an American angle, since the company's battery car supplier is the Indiana-based Ener1 (which also supplies, and partly owns, Norway's Think). Think is coming to the U.S. with battery cars, too, and is building a factory in Indiana.

Gustavsson said that Volvo could station from 20 to 100 cars in California, to be leased to select customers. It's very much a test program, designed, he said, "to understand consumer behavior and acceptance, and driver dynamics." Although Volvo has plans to build a diesel plug-in hybrid for Europe in 2012 (an American gas version will follow),

Gustavsson said that Volvo is still not convinced that it can successfully sell battery EVs. "It's a tough business case," he said. "EVs have very high battery costs, though governments are incentivizing and supporting them a lot. The technology works, and the battery costs are coming down -- as much as one or two percent a month, by our calculations over the last year and a half."

The decision to make the production plug-in hybrid a diesel (the market's first, I think) in Europe and gasoline in the U.S. is probably a prudent one. The European market is at least half diesel, and the percentage is much higher in countries such as France (which offers substantial incentives for them). And the American market is still resistant to diesel. But the combination of an already fuel-efficient diesel with a hybrid drive is a potent one -- the car should have incredible fuel economy.

The fuel cell car will be based on the electric C30, which is called DRIVe. Two will be built initially, and ready by Christmas next year. Volvo's partner in the project is Powercell Sweden AB, which Gustavsson said "has a very promising technology."

The car is said to have a range of 155 miles, which seems a bit low for fuel-cell vehicles â€"- the Toyota Highlander and Honda FCX Clarity both claim 300 miles of range. Gustavsson said the decision to carry a biodiesel tank came after investigating methanol as an onboard fuel. That setup, with a methanol tank and an onboard reformer, was part of the plan that Mercedes announced for the cars (as many as 40,000!) it planned to roll out in 2004. Daimler's program has since gone back to conventional pressurized hydrogen.

Volvo was actually an early developer of a hybrid car prototype, and some of that technology went into former owner Ford's Escape Hybrid. Now, with Geely at the helm, it's plugging in with alacrity.

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Photo: Volvo