The Chevrolet Volt was originally meant to be a flex-fuel vehicle, capable of running on ethanol blends up to E85. So all John Brackett is doing, really, is restoring the car to its original capability.
Brackett, an automotive engineer featured in Fuel Freedom’s 2014 documentary PUMP (he’s the mutton-chopped guy, hence the moniker Fuelverine), recently bought a 2013 Volt. That car isn’t flex-fuel, of course: It’s a plug-in hybrid powered by electricity until the battery runs out, then
the gasoline engine kicks in. For Brackett, this basic engineering fact wasn’t good enough, so he converted the engine so it would run seamlessly on E85.
Brackett pulled it off by making a few simple changes to the software in the vehicle’s on-board computer.
“It took me about 2 minutes to change the software program and about 3 minutes to write to the vehicle using a device called the HP Tuners,” he said. “And those are very affordable. Basically, if you knew somebody with one, it’d be $100 to re-flash [re-program] your vehicle.”
How did Brackett do this so easily? The Volt has the same 1.4-liter engine, and the same computer, as the Chevy Cruze from about the same time. “I’ve been working with the Cruze for several years now, and found that it was a piece of cake to go through it,” he said.
This brings up the question: Why didn’t General Motors make the Volt flex-fuel beginning with the very first model year, 2011? It’s a good question. In January 2007, AutoBlog wrote about the Volt, which had just been unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show as a concept car. The blog wrote:
… the Volt ICE is fully flex fuel capable and can run on any combination of gasoline or ethanol up to E85.
It didn’t turn out that way with the car sold to the public. Even though, Brackett says, based on what he’s seen under the hood, it easily have been made an FFV at the factory.
“They just did not turn it on; they didn’t activate it,” he said. “To make things even worse — easier for me, worse for GM — they have all the ethanol tables already pre-filled, and they actually looked like pretty good tunes for just the ethanol side of things. So they put effort into making this into a flex-fuel car.”
So how easy is it to convert the redesigned 2016 Volt? It has a larger-displacement engine (1.5 liters) with more horsepower (101, vs. 84 in the current model). But it also has direct injection, “which is much more efficient, and it’s much more usable with alcohol fuels,” Brackett said. “So as soon as somebody comes out with the hacking program for them, we’re going to have some good opportunities to be able to alter those as well.”
When it came time to buy a car, the used 2013 Volt was an attractive option, Brackett said. After incentives, he paid only $16,000. The battery range is listed at 37 miles, but he’s been able to squeeze 66 out of it before (the 2016 model is rated at 53 miles on a full battery charge, and 420 miles on electric and gas combined). On the rare occasions he has to fill the gasoline engine, he stops at one of the many E85 stations (here’s a U.S. guide) in and around Denver, where he lives. “I’ve been filling up on the way down to my parents” in Colorado Springs, he said. “They’re at 65 miles, I get almost all the way there on electric, do the last 10-15 miles on E85 and fill up on E85 next to their house.”
In non-FFVs, the check-engine light will often come on if E85 is put in. It doesn’t mean anything’s wrong, but it can be disconcerting. “Most people find that they can do up to E60 [by combining E85 with regular E10] with no code,” Brackett said. “So what I did was, I programmed mine so that it always thinks the car is E50, E60, and it adjusts from there.” (More gearhead data on his blog post.)
Plugging in at home costs him about 2 cents per mile driven. Plus, he says:
“It’s the best driving experience I’ve ever had. The electric [motor] is quiet, its smooth, it’s smarter than I am, it’s reactive to people on the road. Just instantaneous. The regenerative braking is absolutely amazing. I rarely have to touch the brake pedal to slow down, and it regains energy the entire time it’s doing that.”
“You just can’t help but smile driving. And I never feel bad about mashing the pedal.”
- Meet John Brackett, on a mission to convert gas-guzzling cars
- Volkswagen diesel owner: I shoulda bought the Volt
- Some drivers are blending their own premium fuel
- SEMA in review: Ingenuity rules, but fuel choice still missing
- To use less oil, we need to think about cars as software platforms (Fast Company)