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Chevy Volt "More Sophisticated Than a Fighter Jet"

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author photo by Nick Chambers
  • Almost twice as many lines of code as F-35 fighter jet
  • Elegant engineering allows for evolution of plug-in hybrid
  • Safety features built in to software and hardware

Purposely destroying a $40,000 vehicle sounds like something only a crazy person would do, so when industry experts recently tore down a Chevy Volt to learn some of its secrets, the word "deranged" certainly might come to mind. Yet the destructive act had a redeeming quality: their Volt gave its life so that we could all know what makes it tick.

John Scott-Thomas is a Senior Analog Engineer at industry giant UBM TechInsights, and after spending hours mulling over the hundreds of circuit boards embedded in the Volt, he said it's one of the most advanced vehicles he's ever seen. According to Thomas, in conventional cars the various electronic components make up about 20 percent of its value. In the Volt that number is closer to 40 or 45 percent, and it's a trend he sees being emulated in more and more passenger vehicles over the next decade.

"GM likes to remark that the Volt depends on more than 10 million lines of programming code to operate," said Scott-Thomas on a call with journalists. "By comparison an F-35 fighter jet uses 6 million lines of code, so in some ways this is a more sophisticated vehicle than a fighter jet."

All that code is needed to help regulate and coordinate the millions of calculations the Volt performs each second to control everything from the all-important braking and battery pack electricity flow, to the relatively trivial interaction of the driver with the gauge cluster and infotainment system.

Questions remain about the safety of battery-powered vehicles, but Scott-Thomas said all those lines of code combined with some mechanical circuit breakers on the battery pack mean that from a battery/electronics perspective the Volt is very safe - a fact the federal government recently corroborated with test results indicating that it's just as safe as a conventional vehicle. In fact, in some respects the Volt can be considered safer because it's performing 500 individual diagnostic calculations 10 times per second that are meant to ensure smooth, coordinated operation of all the vehicle's parts.

Ultimately both Scott-Thomas and his cohort Albert Steier, an engineering consultant with Munro and Associates, came away from their destruction of the Volt impressed with how flexible and dynamic a platform GM has designed.

"It's a very complex vehicle-perhaps the most complex you'll see on the road today," remarked Scott-Thomas. "The Volt has been designed for evolution and can easily be improved as new technology comes along over the next few years."

What it means to you: With more lines of code than a fighter jet, the Chevy Volt is one of the most impressive pieces of engineering on the road.

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