General Motors, the parent company of Vauxhall and Chevrolet, stunned the Detroit Auto Show with an electric car that makes its own electricity.
It is the next stage in the GM's push, announced at the motor show in Los Angeles just two months ago, to try to 'remove the automobile from the environment debate'.
The Chevrolet Volt is a hybrid - but a hybrid with a difference. Whereas the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic IMA use electric power at low speeds, petrol power when cruising and both when accelerating, the Volt never relies on anything but an electric motor to turn its wheels.
Its secret is that it has a small engine that acts as a generator to charge the electric motor. That engine could be fuelled by petrol, diesel, plant-sourced bio-ethanol or, in future, a hydrogen fuel cell.
On electric power alone the Volt has a range of only 40 miles, but GM calculates this would be enough for the daily mileage of many commuters and school-run drivers. At the end of each day they would simply plug the car in, recharge it on low-cost night-time electricity and never have to rely on the back-up of the engine-generator.
'Used this way, it would eliminate 4.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be pumped into the environment over the car's lifetime,' GM says.
Even higher-mileage drivers doing 60 miles a day would be getting the equivalent of 150mpg because they would be using so little fossil fuel, claims GM.
At the moment the Volt is not a runner, but trials are soon about to start with small petrol and diesel engines acting as generators, and GM estimates a similar car could be commercially available within five years.
The technology is not likely to cost the earth, either. 'Chevrolet is GM's value brand and we wouldn't have introduced this technology on a Chevrolet if it was going to be prohibitively expensive,' said a spokesman.
The Volt on show in Detroit is based on the basic structures that will be used for the next-generation Vauxhall Astra range, but GM insists that its hybrid power system is suitable for any number of small and mid-sized cars.
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