We live in annoyingly ideological times, in which people get worked up about gay marriage, Christopher Bangle, or what religion their neighbor belongs to. This is foreign to me. If it works for you, then go for it, I always say. You like some wheels, you buy ’em; if you don’t, don’t.
So, it’s hard for me to understand what the fuss is about the Chevrolet Volt. It’s just a car, for Pete’s sake! On the other hand, I am a notorious gearhead and can appreciate the importance of what seems to be a totally new automotive concept. It’s new, but does it point toward the future? Let’s discuss it.
The way GM wants to introduce a revolution
Automotive revolutions don’t work this way. You don’t introduce new technical principles by installing them in mid-segment cars. Indeed, there is a historical pattern of how successful innovations are introduced into cars. Car makers put really new stuff like anti-blocking brakes, or air bags, or fuel injection, or turbocharging into their most expensive cars, first. They can charge a real premium for the new gizmos and let the wealthy early-adopters do the long-term testing. After a while, the manufacturer finds out how to make the new technology reliable and inexpensive. Which is then made available for everybody.
Trying to sell something really new to the masses first doesn’t work. Look at the Wankel engine, or the Audi A2, or at sandwich-layout Mercedes’, or at the Chevy Corvair.
So, I am skeptical about the viability of introducing range-extender technology in a mid-priced car. You’d need a Toyota-like attention for detail and long-term quality to pull it off.
The Volt’s batteries
Lithium-Ion batteries are great because they pack a lot of power per pound. But they’re bad because we do not know very much about long-term reliability. Do you have a twelve-year old laptop that works well? Toyota doesn’t trust Li-Ion enough to put it in the Prius. Why should I trust GM when they say it’ll work out OK in the Volt? (Given that I don’t trust GM anyway).
The Volt’s concept
The technical elegance of the concept of the range-extended EV is irresistible. In contrast to the Prius, it means you are truly “electric-first”: you (normally) begin in electric mode and switch only to gasoline propulsion when you run out of juice. Just look at the numbers: over 80% of car trips could be electric-first (assuming the electric range of the Volt).
More numbers: 90% of the time, cars are stationary. Since your car is parked most of the time, you should be able to utilize cheap peak electricity, like when the sun is shining on photovoltaic cells, or when the wind is blowing on windmills. If the concept of the smart grid works out, then you might even sell juice from your batteries when the utilities need it.
Most pure EVs are extremely lightweight and small: otherwise they’d have lousy range. A range-extended EV can be bigger, heavier and safer. With a range-extended EV, you don’t need so many expensive batteries: all you need is enough for your average daily distance.
As are all EVs, the Volt is green. It has no tailpipe emissions and much less brake-dust particulates (since most braking energy is recuperated back to the batteries), most of the time. Very little noise, either. All there is, is smokestack emissions (that are easier to reduce than what comes out of a car).
If that’s not good enough for you, then pay a premium for your utility’s low-CO2 program. Or go photo: even in dim European sunshine, even at the presently low rate of photovoltaic efficiency, all you need for a Volt-size car is 75 square meters to drive 15,000 yearly KMs.
The Volt’s timing
For the first time in history, there will soon be millions and millions of people in China and in India who will be driving cars. Don’t be surprised if the amount of cars on the world’s roads doubles in the next two decade. Sure, there is plenty of fuel, but do you really expect gasoline prices to stay low when demand doubles? Do you really want to purchase a consumer durable that runs on a fuel that might double in price? That doesn’t sound sensible to me.
Neither does it sound sensible to me to keep on sending billions of gasoline Dollars to Wahhabi nutcases, which allows them to finance Jihads, which cost us billions of Dollars to fight. (I am not mentioning lost lives because I want to keep this discussion cool and level-headed).
The Volt’s execution
I haven’t driven it, but most people who have say it works pretty well. It has an acceptable range, an acceptable price-per-mile if you’re a commuter, and the range extender works in an unobtrusive manner. This ain’t your uncle’s Oldsmobile Diesel.
Drumroll: The Ugly
Sorry to be provocative, but I’d like to address what I call the anti-EV clichés.
Diesel is just as good as electric
No it isn’t. Ever been to a city where most people drive Diesel cars? They are loud and they stink. Ever driven a bicycle behind a Diesel taxi that is accelerating strongly because the light just turned amber? Then you have made acquaintance with the overboost fart, i.e. a soot cloud that somehow hasn’t found its way into emission regulations.
We’ll have hydrogen cars soon
That’s bullshit, too.
The Volt is too expensive
If the cost-per-mile equation doesn’t add up for you, then I agree. (But then don’t go buying that $75,000 BMW, please.) And don’t complain when gas prices double.
Blind people will get run over by quiet cars
You’re kidding me, right?
The Volt gets worse range when you turn on the heater or the air-con
For propulsion, electric power is highly effective, while combustion engines have only 15-20% energy efficiency. For heating purposes, it’s the other way around. If you need a lot of heat, get a Webasto (or similar) heating unit. Let’s not overthink this.
Bob Lutz said the Volt would get 230 MPG, but it doesn’t
And your computer says it has a 160 GB hard disc, but came with only 145 GB usable space. For what it’s worth, the EU certified the Volt (Ampera) for 147 MPG. Next!
The Volt is not sexy. I want a V8
I can appreciate strong acceleration, but anybody who thinks they need a car that tells the world that they have large breasts or big hairy balls is a Sad Person.
GM is a commie company and the Volt is built by UAW assholes
So, the world would be a better place if Detroit had 75% unemployment and GM had been liquidated in the middle of the worst post-war recession? As I said in the beginning, I’m not interested in ideological discussions.
We’re conflicted. So what?
You could say this piece is full of contradictions. What, he likes the Volt in principle (but doesn’t like the company?) He says range-extended EVs are the future (but doesn’t know which type is best)? Sure. We’re talking about a new technological concept that carries hopes and risks. It won’t go away by hating the Volt.