DETROIT – Declaring it “isn’t a science project” but a harbinger of General Motors Corp.’s future technology and manufacturing strategy, CEO Rick Wagoner says early production work has begun on its Chevrolet Volt Concept, unveiled here at the North American International Auto Show.

Wagoner says the plug-in electric vehicle is concrete evidence GM is seeking to redefine how it engineers powertrains and the fuels that run them.

“We’ve got to stop thinking about either/or,” Wagoner says. “It’s either a petroleum, a gasoline, diesel or electric (vehicle). Our point is that you’ve really got to embrace the concept of both a diversity of sources of energy. Probably, if you look forward to what we’re producing in, say, 20 years, it’ll be a diversity of propulsion systems.”

The Volt is designed to run solely on charged electric power for a range of 40 miles (64 km) from a standard 110-volt outlet. Additional power is supplied via a 3-cyl., 1.0L turbo engine that can run on gasoline, diesel or agricultural-based fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol/gasoline blends such as E85.

A suitable lithium-ion battery pack remains the main obstacle to building the vehicle. Engineers say the battery must have at least a 10-year life for GM to bring the car to market.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done by battery suppliers,” Wagoner concedes.

“It’s going to be a great race to see who can move faster,” he says.

Wagoner says the auto maker learned a lot about hybrid-electric technology from its failed EV1 vehicle, the all-electric model it introduced in 1996 and killed a few years later. The EV1 had a range of just 90 miles (144 km).

“It was a bit ahead of its time,” he says. “The thing we learned (was) customers’ unwillingness to sacrifice things like range. We also learned they want kind of a normal vehicle, and that’s what (the Volt) tries to represent.”

Production and engineering work on the Volt concept is taking place at GM’s Warren (MI) Technical Center, but Wagoner says it’s too soon to say when or where GM will build the production version. However, he does say the Volt could be manufactured in several different countries.

“Our goal is to have this in the showroom like any other car,” Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman-global product development, says. “The (E-Flex) architecture is so flexible, we could do station wagons, crossovers, sport coupes.”

Lutz notes U.S. auto makers have applied for battery development grants from the Department of Energy and says the federal government could do more to help advance technology.

“Let’s face it, the Japanese government is pouring hundreds of millions (of dollars) into advanced battery research,” he says. “We really don’t want to get to a point where we have to rely on Japanese batteries and Japanese producers saying, ‘Don’t sell anything to the Americans.’”

Asked if the Volt has leapfrogged Toyota Motor Corp. in terms of fuel economy, Lutz says, “I don’t know what (Toyota’s) got up their sleeve, but I think (the Volt) – at the very least – closes the gap substantially.”

scanderson@wardsauto.com