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GM's Big Bet: the Chevy Volt
Adam Stein, 26 Jun 08


The Atlantic has a fun piece on GM's ambitious plan to bring the Volt to market by 2010. I generally don't go in for overripe tales of corporate heroism, and I definitely don't go in for economic nationalism, but hell if the story didn't make me want to hoist up an American flag and blast the Mellencamp from the transistor radio in my '68 Chevelle:

Because it will have both an electric and a gasoline motor on board, the Volt will be a hybrid. But it will be like no hybrid on the road today. Existing hybrids are gasoline-powered cars, with an electric assist to improve the gas mileage. The Volt will be an electric-powered car, with a gasoline assist to increase the battery's range.

Doesn't sound like a big deal, perhaps, but most industry watchers seem to think GM's goal simply isn't possible with today's technology. And, in fact, they're right: GM has basically placed all their chips on the table, betting that they can develop a radically new car and a radically new battery simultaneously. It's an inspired and somewhat desperate act from a company that has been better known for its missteps and setbacks in recent years.

The car will get something like 50 miles to the gallon when it uses its engine to recharge the batteries, but this stat has led to some confusion by obscuring the more important point: for most drivers, the engine will rarely kick in. The car has a range of 40 miles on batteries alone, which can be recharged from a standard outlet. Typical commuters could go their whole lives without ever filling the tank.

Others have made the mistake of unfavorably comparing the 40-mile battery-only range of the Volt with the 75+ mile range of GM's ill-fated all-electric EV-1. There are a lot of reasons this comparison doesn't hold up, but suffice to say that the EV-1, however nifty a piece of technology, simply wasn't a mass-market vehicle capable of replacing the typical sedan.

While the engineering is no doubt impressive, the most brilliant thing about the Volt seems to be the publicity campaign. By opening up their normally secretive product design process to outside scrutiny, GM has practically turned the car -- which doesn't even exist yet -- into a consumer movement. Buyers are practically willing this thing into existence. It's hard not to root for the beleaguered giant.

The author of the article thinks that GM will probably not quite succeed, but come close enough. Dates will slip a bit, prices will rise, but not so far or so high that the Volt becomes GM's latest public flop. Here's the great thing, though: it doesn't really matter if the Volt itself is the car that pushes electric drivetrains to the mainstream. The competition -- Toyota, BMW, Nissan, Tesla -- has taken notice. I'm not necessarily betting on the Volt to win, but I am willing to bet that my next car will be electric.

Photo credit: Autoblog Green

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I am interested in seeing how the volt turns out. Unfortunately, I don't have much faith in GM to turn out a quality product. Mercedes announced an initiative to stop using gasoline in their new vehicles by 2015. It's going to be an exciting decade no matter what.

Posted by: Nimic on 26 Jun 08

The Atlantic Monthly piece was pure BS - this journalists had some preconceived "ironic" notions and manufactured his stories to match. The websites that are knoweldgeable about the subject subsequently tore his article into shreds. It was humorous to see his pessimisitic and gloomy predicitons and then just the next day watch events that he claimed wouldn't occur for months actually happen on schedule. It's good to see an unreliable journalist taken out so completely. I predict that he won't be writing any more articles about the Volt.

Posted by: kerry bradshaw on 26 Jun 08

Apparently nobody aroundhere ever vistis the gm-volt website. If you want to know what's going on with the Volt, I can verify that the Atlantic Monthly article was mostly silly, but also completely obsolete. There are NO problems with the development of the Volt. Bob Lutz last week stated that there is no reasonable expectation that the car will not be delivered on time. The battery ciosts (around $16K)
have come in higher than they had hoped originally, but, quite frankly, the way the public is killing themselves these days to avoid gasoline, I don't think the now expected $40K price will drive away many custoemrs. And those battery prices are INITIAL production prices. The Prius at its inauguration cost about $10K more than it does today, with Toyota eating a lot of the cost. A123 Systems execs have claiemd a price decline of more than 50% in the not too dstant future, and there is also talk of providing optional sized battery packs, so that those who don't really need 40 miles of electric driving range (like those 51% of commuters whose round trip is less than 20 miles, for example), would only pay around $32K. There WILL be a $5K tax break also, which will put the car not that far from its initial estimates. One could have reasonably questioned the prospects for success for the Volt a year and a half ago, back in the dark ages when gas was $2.50, and no one had had any experience with building such a car, but to doubt succes at this point requires that one be pretty much totally out of touch with what's happened over at GM in the interim - for example, more than 6 months of constant testing of two candidiate battery pack designs, now in their third generation, with not one single failure. No one can possibly claim that the batteries won't work. At this point any doubt is seen by those in the know as totally bizarre and indicative more of ignorance than anything else.

Posted by: tom c gray on 26 Jun 08

It's a step in vaguely the right direction. Two points:

1) Electric cars are an environmental irrelevance unless the electricity powering them is sourced from renewables.

2) The Aptera seems to be a better alternative to the Volt at a similar price point, so why not mention it in your article?

Posted by: Sam Kuper on 27 Jun 08

My 2 cents.

The volt will be powered by 20% nuclear, 50% coal, etc. etc (the usual breakdown). It is a much better environmental proposition than gasoline and it makes production of the energy and american job and does not send money to societies who would like to impose sharia law on the planet. This type of vehicle, could reduce the desire/need/perpensity to get into middle eastern wars.

As far as the Aptera goes, this is a three wheeled two seat motorcycle with a big fairing over the cockpit. It might be a great commuter vehicle but it is not a replacement for the family car like the volt will be. There is also more engineering behind the volt.

Posted by: nucboy on 27 Jun 08

The Volt is a great start but why only 40 miles? The EV1 that GM created in 1998 was good for 70 miles. Maybe they should bring those engineers back to the company. Not to mention, there are electric vehicles being made that get anywhere from 100 miles (Phoenix Motor Cars) to 350 miles (Tesla Sports car). So, we know the technology is available, just not the will power it seems. Wouldn't surprise me if the oil companies are paying big money to suppress these companys' ideas.

And don't give me this crap that electric isn't any better than gas because electricity is created from coal or gas. Alternative energys are coming and will inventually take over. Plus, we don't need new infrastructure like Hydrogen would. We already have an electric grid around the country.

In my opinion, the electric car can't come soon enough and GM deserves losing there money on SUV's etc. for being so short sighted and greedy. The EV1 would have put them in the drivers seat of car sales today if they hadn't killed it.

Posted by: Gregor on 27 Jun 08

GM should bring back a version of the EV1 with state of the art battery technologies and call it the Revised EV1, or REV1. With gas prices soaring above $4 a gallon on average, reintroducing an EV1 Renaissance (how about EV1-R ?) will draw in tons of buyers, both the cost and the environmentally conscious types. That would be a great road towards reviving GM's image and profitability.

What do you think it should be called -

REV1 or EV1-R ?

Posted by: Jim on 27 Jun 08

All this seems to me that it's totally missing the basic problem: Most people here are facing lower incomes, (I think we're back to 1978 income levels when corrected for inflation) and are hard pressed to drive whatever they have now muchless take on a very expensive new vehicle unless they are commuting far enough to justify the payments to offset the cost of the fuel they're now using. Look on the streets and you see lots of 80 and 90' cars and with the increased costs of operation, there will be more of the oldies out there because we can't make the payments for our newer ones.
The concept of reducing smog isn't relevant in that the power producing plants are the #1 polluters by far not the cars, old or new.
A bit of research tells that there is still lots of oil out there, but it is owned by corporations that are making MASSIVE profits selling it to us at astronomic prices just as they have in Europe long ago.
It's ALL about profits and if we buy the megabuck cars it's just more of the same. Do a cost/benefit analysis and you'll keep your present car!

Posted by: Michael Rogers on 27 Jun 08

Given the anticipated improvements of high-torque electric motor and battery technology, there's no reason why fully electric drive-trains can't eclipse IC engines by 2020. And while I disagree with Huber's BigOil-funded conclusions, his "Bottomless Well" is a good resource for EV trends and related data.

As for Sam's comment that EV's are an "environmental irrelevence," I don't think that's true. Net carbon emission from high efficiency, grid-sourced vehicles must trend lower, and will only improve each year as grids (macro and especially local/micro) become more efficient.

Posted by: John L on 27 Jun 08

One spin off benefit from a large fleet of plugin hybrids will be the massive electric storage that the fleet will provide. If the vehicles were fitted with or connected to smart meters they could become a vital energy storage capacity for the grid.
They would re-charge at off peak -- evening out demand and storing the base-load electricity produced during these hours. During peak load times they could sell electricity back onto the grid. Most of these cars will not need to use all their stored energy on every day -- some simple software in a car could be programmed to determine the correct spare electricity capacity that could be sold off during peak hours, based on the user input commute distance for example or average daily usage over some moving average (say a thirty day average)
While the electric storage of a single vehicle may not seem like much multiply it by a million or ten million and the totals quickly become significant.
The plugin hybrids could also serve as a massive load balancer for the grid and they could do so for very little extra investment and additional technology.
Of course it should also be noted that it is doubtful that the current grid could support the drain of tens of millions of plugin hybrids that chiefly where drawing their power down from the grid. The grid would fail.

Posted by: Chris de Morsella on 27 Jun 08

Great post Chris. I like those ideas. As for the grid failing because of load, maybe this is where solar panels at home or at the business you work at would fit in. Create our own energy to help feed the system and charge our vehicles. As far as price is concerned, we just need the volume produced and everything will start coming down in price. This is where the government comes in with some tax incentives for EVERYONE, not just big business.

Posted by: Gregor on 27 Jun 08

Agreed these present the possibility for a move to a smart grid. thought I am no lover of the big fat hypocrite, Al Gore, but I think this was what was on his mind back when he was stumping for a new grid. Ten million EVS (this figure might become 200 million in time) should also produce the incentive for local pV charging stations, like at company parking lots as well as retail outlets, with coin meters/cc slots, (no reason they can not be profitable too, just like retail gas) as well as provide an additional grid battery for increasing the grid capacity to over the 20% figure presently for commercial wind farms and big solar. The more electric cars the bigger the figure. The willingness of company managers to invest in solar charging for employees coupled with gov. incentives to set these up, both questionable propositions given history,(but things are changing) could bring about a smart grid and much cleaner society less dependant on foreign oil. The war is presently putting the US into debt far into the future and one source I have read claims 1/2 our (US) oil consumption is presently burned by the military itself ?? The move to electric tansport generally is a large task, but will provide a lot of work. A good career choice for a college age kid would be electrician or Electrical engineer. they will be busy for the next few generations. Either that, if things don't change, grave digger.

Posted by: jeremiah c on 28 Jun 08

Jerimiah writes, "I have read claims 1/2 our (US) oil consumption is presently burned by the military itself??"

Iraqi military operations currently consume about 1.2 million barrels per month, but that figure varies widely depending who you read. Total U.S. military consumes about 12 million barrels per month, 70% of that as jet fuel.

Total U.S. non-military oil consumption is roughly 20 million barrels per DAY, a bit more than half as import. So U.S. military is about 2% of total U.S. demand.

Posted by: John L on 28 Jun 08

thanks John, my bad. 1/2 seemed sort of like a crock given the number of cars on the road. I would also question the figure you gave, depending on/no matter where it came from, though. There seems to be more disinformation than accurate information sometimes on the internet depending on what one is researching or just reading about in passing. I would think it a hard task to include all military related consumption and would not count on the GAO to give accurate/non-bent information at this point in time. And if this figure were somehow accurately found, it would have to be as a factor against peacetime consumption. But I will gladly concede 1/2 is an erroneous and probably ridiculous figure. I should not have posted that figure as it was something I read in passing somewhere without research.

Posted by: jeremiah on 28 Jun 08

I dont believe GM has the skill to operate in this market. Tesla and other new car manufacturers will hopefully fill the gap, with knowledge and serious intellectual property in electrical design. That way some american companies can still be in the car business.

Let's be honest, GM cant even make the low-voltage electronics in their cars today work well. Do we really expect them to compete with Silicon Valley, or even Toyota and Honda? 40 miles on electricity? That's it??


Posted by: Ed on 29 Jun 08

It is quite sad that people are so negative about GM's efforts to push the technology forward in a meaningful way. Normal people don't want to drive around in electric three-wheelers. They want a regular looking car, that fits their needs and saves fuel.

As for the electricity being "dirty" because of how it was generated - having the option to plug in our cars at least means that as the power gets cleaner we all benefit.

Posted by: John on 2 Jul 08

dont need all electric cars,i drove my hybryd ford escape around town (orlando) yesterday and did not use any gasoline, am i missing something here, total miles inc 1 gallon for going home on expressway is 78 miles total mpg is 78 miles per gallon. please tell me im doing the right thing,seems most people have no idea of a hybrid.

Posted by: nick on 4 Jul 08

I read some comments questioning GM's ability to manufacture electric cars and the EV1. There is a whole documentary about it called, "Who killed the electric car" in 11 parts on youtube. ( I found it eye opening and a fun watch. There is testimony from GM employees who sold/developed it, as well as customers. And of course a bunch of other things you won't believe until you research it yourself.

Posted by: Erwin Viser on 4 Jul 08

Tom Gray writes that "the now expected $40k price won't drive away many consumers." I think that is a wildly and unjustifiably optimistic prediction; that's more than twice the price of a nice family car like the corolla which gets better gas mileage. A five thousand dollar premium for alternative power, as the Atlantic article notes, is apparently imaginable to car buyers nowadays (and wasn't a couple of years ago). I think a $10k premium is still within the bounds of reality. A $20k premium puts it into a different ballpark for the average buyer, obviously.

Posted by: jack brown on 7 Jul 08

My Prius averages 50 miles per gallon. It tells me so. I think all cars should have that kind of feedback. Most of us would drive more sensibly if we saw from moment to moment what gas mileage we were achieving.

Posted by: Cathryn on 7 Jul 08

As much as the market needs such a car, GM needs to think is this even possible with today's technology as stated in the article? It just doesn't seem possible to develop all of this technology and have this car, in markets by 2010. My bet is that they'll screw up with the price, dates will be pushed backed, and so forth. Though it is quite an impressive looking car to say the least

Posted by: Justin on 10 Jul 08



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