The big news in green cars today will be the noon release of pricing and ordering information for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, GM's upcoming range-extended compact electric car.

But GM had more noteworthy news today, all the way from the other side of the world.

General Motors, the company pilloried for "killing the electric car," is going to build a (very) small number of battery electric vehicles.

So why is this significant? Because GM has been remorselessly touting the benefits of the Volt's range extender engine, which adds 300 more miles on gasoline to its 40-mile electric range.

And because the company hasn't built a full electric car since its late, lamented EV1 two-seater a decade ago.

Global demonstration fleets

At the World Expo 2010 Shanghai today, Karl Stracke, GM's vice president of global vehicle engineering, announced that the company will set up demonstration fleets of various battery-electric vehicles in different regions.

GM's goal is to obtain real-world data on how drivers actually use electric cars, looking at driving patterns, time and frequency of battery charging, and customer reactions to driving EVs. The company will partner with suppliers and government partners to share the costs.

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

Rigorous reliability testing for components

Components being tested include lithium-ion battery packs and the software that controls them, the electric motors that power the vehicles, and both the power electronics and control systems to make all the pieces play together.

Ensuring that those components can stand up to the most rigorous usage that customers can devise will be critical in giving EVs a reputation for reliability early on.

GM has a growing body of real-world test data from the Two-Mode full hybrid systems it's sold in full-size sport utilities and pickup trucks for three years now, but its most recent data for battery electric cars--from the EV1--is almost a decade old.

And the EV1 was never fitted with the lithium-ion cells that will power future all-electric vehicles and an increasing number of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and range-extended EVs like the 2011 Chevy Volt.

GM expects the data it gains from BEVs to apply to battery, motor, and controls development for the other three types of electric-drive vehicles as well.

Three regions, not including the U.S.

The relevant section of the press release concluded, "Additional details about the battery-electric vehicle demo fleets will be announced in the future."

We pressed GM spokesman Brian Corbett for more details and, while he was tight-lipped, he added a little more color to this rather dry statement of intent.

There will be three regions involved, Corbett said, adding that the BEV fleets will not be tested in the U.S., at least initially.

He called the fleet of BEVs "smart and targeted" at answering specific questions about usage patterns, and reiterated that GM wants to spread the costs, the risks, and the learnings with its technology partners.

2010 Chevrolet New Sail, sold in China

2010 Chevrolet New Sail, sold in China

200 to 600 cars? Nah...

Will the GM fleet total the 200 to 600 vehicles used by other makers--BMW's fleet of 600 Mini E conversions, for instance, or the 600 prototype Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrids now being tested? Corbett demurred, saying it would likely be "smaller than that range."

The vehicles to be tested are highway-capable models sold by GM in various regions throughout the world. Would U.S. drivers recognize them? One vehicle will be "one that is marketed here," said Corbett, though the U.S. won't be a test area to start.

GM's Chinese joint venture, known as Shanghai GM, will finish developing an electric version of its Chevrolet New Sail minicar by the end of this year.

It's also worth noting the persistent rumors that GM might develop an all-electric version of the Chevy Volt within a few years after that car's launch as a 2011 model.

Meanwhile, we expect to hear more about GM's plans within weeks. Corbett said he hoped the vehicles involved and the various technical partners for two of the three regions to be chosen might be announced as soon as next month.

[General Motors]