"Mister Volt" - the key man in helping GM build electric car

Frank Weber, one of the key figures working on the General Motors (GM) plan to launch the Volt electric car in two years time, is a unique combination of eco-freak and car fanatic. ( dpa )

"I am convinced that a green future is possible while still having fun with the motor car," the 41-year-old German says.

After completing his studies at the end of the 1980s, Weber spent much of his time restoring about three dozen rare classic cars in the city of Darmstadt.

The Chevrolet Volt combines all the advantages of the electric vehicle with the hybrid cars already available. The sporty sedan is powered by a 160 hp electric motor with a generator providing power once the batteries are empty.

The lithium-ion battery has a range of about 60 kilometres with the petrol-driven generator extending the range to up to 1,000 kilometres. The Chevy has a top speed of 190 kilometres per hour and accelerates from zero to 100 kilometres in eight seconds.

Weber says he was fascinated by everything new from his childhood days in the city of Wiesbaden. He found his classic piano lessons too boring and so composed his own jazz pieces. "I refuse to tread on worn out paths," he says.

Weber joined GM's German subsidiary Opel in 1991 where he worked in the development centre creating the global platform for the Vectra successor, the Insignia. For a time he was flying to GM's US headquarters every week until he decided to stay there in March 2007.

By placing its market focus on fuel-guzzling large limousines and trucks, GM missed the trend toward more economical cars. Arch rival Toyota made inroads in the US market with its "green" hybrid cars.

GM is late on the eco front but is coming back with a bang, by announcing a mass production of an electric vehicle much sooner than its competitors. It is planning to produce from 2010 some 10,000 units of the Volt at a price of a normal medium range vehicle of 35,000 dollars (23,000 euros). Soon afterwards GM is planning a European launch under the Opel label.

"GM has given the project top priority," Weber says. Some 200 engineers and 50 designers are part of the team at GM's development centre in Warren, Michigan, near Detroit. By next year the number of staff are expected to be at about 1,000. Another 300 people are working closely with Weber's team on fuel cell technology that will supply energy for the electric vehicle in later models.

Because time is of the essence, GM's CEO Rick Wagoner made his "Mister Volt" head of the model line-up as well as head of the global development team working on the E-Flex system of the Volt. One of the posts on its own would surely bring a lot of stress.

"One thing I quickly learned on this project is that if you postpone things, they often don't work out any more," he says.

At the heart of the Chevrolet Volt is the 180-kilo lithium-ion battery pack. "The battery is the critical element in the project," he says. But he is confident that all performance and safety issues can be solved.

When the Volt concept made its debut at the Detroit Motor Show last year, analysts were sceptical. "Today we are instead seeing a lot of interest in what we are doing," the engineer explains.

To convince customers of the advantages in going electric, Weber promises the usual comfort. "You must be able to sit down in the car and drive it like any other medium range vehicle," he says. The occupants in the car can decide themselves how much power they want to use for the stereo or the air conditioning.

Privately Weber lives an eco-lifestyle: "No meat, no alcohol and organic foods." And despite his high pressure job he needs time off for his family with three children aged eight, six and one. He "recharges" his own batteries by playing a piano he recently acquired in the US.

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