Volt Battery Pack No. 1 Rolls off Assembly Line, Finish Line in Sight

What can General Motors do with five months, an empty warehouse and $43 million? We’re sure you’re ready with a witty answer, but what the automaker did with those ingredients is renovate and equip a plant to assemble battery packs for its upcoming Chevy Volt. Today in Brownstown, Mich., the automaker held a ceremonial startup of the plant and rolled its first battery pack off the manufacturing line.

While startup Tesla Motors has assembled battery packs for its high-end electric Roadster in California, Volt pack No. 1 rolling out of Brownstown represents the first time one of the country’s biggest automakers has begun operating a battery plant in the U.S. for plug-in vehicles. And with the finish line for GM’s long road to high volume production of the Volt now in sight, GM’s Jon Lauckner, chief of global product planning, hinted that the car may debut with a price tag lower than the expected $40,000.

Lauckner in the past has said that pricing probably would not be finalized until mid- to late-2010, and he said at this morning’s event in Brownstown, “We have until this summer to figure that out.”

Still, a few more hurdles remain. GM explains in its announcement this morning that the initial packs coming out of Brownstown “will be used to validate the plant’s equipment and processes, and batteries will be sent to GM’s Global Battery Systems lab in Warren, Mich. for testing.” In a few months (this spring, according to GM), the automaker plans to start shipping packs to the Detroit-Hamtramck factory. There, the batteries will be used in “production validation” versions of the Volt. If no major snags come up along the way, then regular production will begin during the fourth quarter of this year.

Significant hurdles also remain for what many hope will eventually become an advanced battery industry in the U.S. that’s competitive on the global market. Firms based in China, Japan, and South Korea currently dominate the market for lithium-ion batteries. But Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said at the Brownstown event this morning, “We will recapture the lead we have lost and become the world leader in clean vehicles…This is where the real work begins.”

The 400-pound Volt battery pack, made up of more than 200 lithium-ion cells, is not entirely GM’s doing. As the Detroit News reports this morning, the automaker and cell supplier Compact Power (the Troy, Mich.-based subsidiary of South Korea’s cell phone and laptop battery behemoth LG Chem) worked on the technology under a structure they call “decoupled development,” since both companies were new to building batteries for electric cars.

Compact Power designed, engineered and built hundreds of prototype packs for GM’s Volt test fleet, the Detroit News explains. Now, as Compact Power continues to work on packs for future GM vehicles (as well as for other automakers), GM has taken over assembly of the Volt packs.

Photo courtesy of General Motors

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