High Voltage

What my work days have consisted of:

  • Wake up at 6:45, which is a time I had forgotten existed.
  • Get into my rented Toyota Corolla (long story) and drive ~35 minutes to the Milford Proving Grounds, which, it’s worth noting, look like this:

That weird gray square towards the top is 67 acres of asphalt referred to as "Black Lake"

  • Find a parking spot for the Corolla, which is one of maybe five foreign cars (hell, non-GM cars) in the employee lot.
  • Walk through the underground tunnel to my desk.
  • Get in a Chevy Volt, plug my computer into the car, grab data.  It’s a little bit like plugging into the Matrix, but I use an ethernet wire instead of a giant brain needle and I don’t learn kung fu.
  • Tear like a 70-mile-per-hour, electrically powered, extremely heavy bat out of a parking lot so grievously full it may as well be considered an apt approximation of Hell onto the test track.
  • Do a couple of laps on the Oval Track (that’s the middle loop in the above picture that kind of looks like a lamb shank with a lake in the middle of it), then plug the car in to charge.
  • Go muddle around trying to figure out how to best air-cool the battery in a future SUV hybrid.  In a week or two, this is hopefully going to become “go air-cool the battery in a future SUV hybrid while driving it in the High Feature Test Facility.”  The High Feature Test Facility is a room with a car-sized treadmill and the ability to create weather.

The HFTF, probably (to be honest, I looked for a picture of Zeus first, but Tesla's waaaay more impressive)

  • Grab more charge data, do more laps
  • Rinse and repeat

So it’s been pretty cool.  The Proving Grounds are just massive, and very cool to get to see, let alone drive through.  The work is interesting, if straightforward, and seeing how a massive company like GM functions from the inside is a whole different post.  What’s been most interesting is discussion of the bailout — or, rather, the fact that no one ever brings it up.  It’s just this thing that happened, and no one seems to let on that it was a big deal.  In fairness, GM has done pretty well, I think: the US government owns only about a quarter of the stock after GM’s IPO last year, and GM paid back the entirety of the government’s loan — plus interest — in a matter of months (when the government gave them something like five years to pay the money back completely). Someone who actually understands economics should check me here.

Also, as long as I’m talking about my internship, if anyone knows who Dan Neil is (or even if you don’t), I recommend his review of the Volt from October of last year, right before the first models hit the market.  It includes this quote:

I get it. A lot of people don’t like GM because: 1) the bailout, or 1a) Obama; or 2) the United Auto Workers; or 3) because some Monte Carlo or Cutlass Sierra or deuce-and-a-quarter left them walking a long time ago. That’s understandable. These are sour times. But for the moment, we should suspend our rancor and savor a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet. And they did it in 29 months while the company they worked for was falling apart around them. That was downright heroic. Somebody ought to make a movie.

Which is pretty vintage Neil.  But also really true — the wristwatches are cheap and the Volt is an impressive feat of engineering.  Neil goes into the basics of how the Volt works, but here’s the summary: unlike the Toyota Prius, which has a full internal combustion engine and can be driven either in electric or gasoline modes, or the Nissan Leaf, which is a solely electric car, the Volt is a “series hybrid,” which means the only thing connected to the wheels is an electric motor.  The small gasoline engine on board isn’t really an engine at all — it’s a generator, used to charge the battery (if needed) while the car moves.  So the Volt is more like an electric car with the charging station from your garage inside of it than a traditional hybrid.

And, unlike the Prius, it looks pretty good while it does it

Just a bunch of Midwestern engineers pushing the frontiers of automotive technology, no big deal.

A final parting shot: I know they’re very different companies, but Tesla Motors definitely picked the better namesake.  Just look at this guy.

Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta, who invented the battery and was narrowly defeated by Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben for most names in the 18th century

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