Moreover, improvements were being incorporated as fast as they could be conceived; the battery would be on its second generation in January, its third in June. “It’s incredible,” Turner said. “The design they’ve come up with for thermal changed 10 times before they delivered the first battery.” And all of this was before the arrival of a competing battery that might be as good or even better, designed jointly by the Massachusetts-based company A123 Systems and the German company Continental A.G. “We’re inventing and creating on the critical path,” Turner said. He was using the industry jargon for the countdown to production, when time is money and delays can cost millions. “I’ve got guys trying to release things before they’re actually invented.”
As I got ready to go, Turner pointed to a laptop wired to the battery. “I’m testing as I’m talking to you,” he said. “It’s working great. I’m all giddy.”
‘There Is No Next Week’
The news was just as good in the Volt’s design studio, a repurposed auditorium. Designers sat in cubicles on the stage, an aptly theatrical touch for so publicity-conscious a car. A mural proclaimed the program’s goals, one of which was “Radically Shifts GM’s Public Perceptions.” On the main floor was a full-size model of the car, hidden under a blue tarp. As a rule, car companies go to great lengths to hide their developmental designs, and so I was surprised when my handler ordered the model disrobed: even by Volt standards, this was exceptional access. The model looked rounder and smoother than the aggressively sporty show car, and for good reason: to squeeze 40 miles out of its battery, the Volt will need to be the most aerodynamically efficient car GM has ever built.
Here, as in the battery lab, work was proceeding rapidly. The design, though still evolving, was already 98 percent there, Bob Boniface, the Volt’s design director, told me. “We’ve taken more than half a year out of the schedule,” he said. Ordinarily, if you had a problem with a taillight, you might schedule a meeting for the next week. “With this, there is no next week.”
Early on, word had come down from Bob Lutz and Jon Lauckner that standard procedure was suspended where the Volt was concerned. “You guys are not going to be held to the normal GM bureaucracy,” Lutz recalls saying. “You guys spend money when you need to spend it. You have a problem, call us on the phone.” Engineers, designers, and executives were told to trust their instincts and make decisions on the spot. If a larger issue crops up, it is taken to a special Volt steering committee, and Lutz, Lauckner, and the key company vice presidents settle it before leaving the room.
“Whenever I have a problem, it is resolved within days,” Frank Weber, who manages the Volt project, told me. “Within days! One call, and things happen immediately.” Weber, a 41-year-old German import from GM’s Opel division in Europe, is precise, organized, unflappable, as if German-engineered himself. One morning, when the steering group heard that the battery was running behind schedule, a senior production executive said to Weber, “Tell us what you need.” By early that afternoon, the two of them were enlisting more engineers.
‘Suddenly, Playtime Is Over’
At the end of February, when I returned to the technical center, the picture looked different. December’s ebullience had given way to a sense of strain that was evident even to a tourist. “We currently are at the limit of our stretch,” one senior battery engineer told me. He was just back from a week’s skiing in Colorado, where he had sought escape, but where for three nights the battery had intruded on his dreams. “Three nights, and I could only think about that battery!”