By on October 25, 2010

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 Bad:

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 Good:

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.

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45 Comments on “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: Some European Perspective On The Chevy Volt...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Thanks for putting my feelings into words.  But I still love that political cartoon.  Put a flesh and blood version of the spokes babe in the commercials and you might sell some Volts.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    The Volt – and most of your points/counterpoints – are about ideology.  If you’re “not interested in ideological discussions”, then there isn’t much I can say.
     
    Ford’s recent successes are partially traceable to consumer ideology, and partially traceable to product.  The Volt’s success or failure will be no different.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      You’re not being very European about it, gslippy. Of course he is presenting ideology as logic. Of course he is ignoring the most obvious externalities, like that producing solar cells uses energy that solar cells take years to recover, and that batteries use cathode materials that will turn murderous bastards into billionaires who make the Wahhabis look like the EPA. Oh well. If there weren’t people myopic enough to think that totalitarians are more just than markets, then there would be no existence for career politicians.

  • avatar
    snabster

    Well, all this is based on the suspicion that with increased demand prices have to go up.
    True, and not true.
    There is a supply side as well, and more importantly the delta where there is spare capacity.  With $80 oil, the Saudis and other low cost producers have incentive to invest in production.  And Iraq will start selling oil again.  And perhaps, in the near future, Iran will be a world class producer as well.
    And next time oil gets to peak pricing, Americans will again cut back driving a little.  That little cutbacks are more than China’s growth in imports.
    So it is all in the timing.  Assume a scenario where oil prices stay in the 80 to 120 range for the next 10 years.  The Volt (and associated technology) doesn’t look so hot.  Sarah Palin in 12 or 16 kills the 60 MPG cafe requirements.
     
    But all being said, it looks as GM pulled a rabbit out of the hat.  Assuming reliability — and no battery meltdowns — I suspect it will be a hit.  The GM haters can now look at GM not executing on a plan, rather than the technology, as the failure.

  • avatar
    Adub

    This article has more holes in it than than a mini-golf course. My favorites:

    GM liquidated? Ooh, I bet they would have filed for bankruptcy just like THEY DID, except the mugger with the gun (the UAW) would not have been given the keys to the house.

    Wahhabi nutcases? Those evil Arabs spend their oil wealth by buying… Treasuries and other paper assets that let every First World country run a deficit and spend money they don’t have and can’t pay back.

    So Herr Schwoerer would rather pay a premium for his feel-good car, reducing our demand while letting other countries buy more gasoline at now-cheaper prices?

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t respect most of what was written.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike999

      Adub,
      It’s a complex world.  We’d like to be TRUE Allie’s with the Saudi family, yet they do spend their money Exporting Muslim Extremists into other countries, just broadening the “War on Terror”.  If they kept their religion at home, maybe we could keep our armies at home.
      Until that happens, US policy should be to move off oil.
       

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    “You like some wheels, you buy ‘em; if you don’t, don’t.”

    A perfectly appropriate viewpoint. Unless you are a shareholder in the company (voluntarily or involuntarily) making the wheels. Then the “fuss” over the Volt gets a lot more important.

  • avatar
    carguy

    Nice work Martin – I’m happy to see that TTAC has returned to a more nuanced editorial approach when covering the Volt.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I agree.  This is the first I’ve seen in a long while of the distinct editorials TTAC is famous for.  We’ve seen a little bit too much editorializing in the content and this is a good change.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    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

    I really have to wonder if this has nothing to do with HSD vs Voltec and everything to do with the (lighter, more powerful) LiIon batteries in the Volt versus the (heavier, lower-capacity) batteries in the Prius.

    And those batteries do make me awfully nervous.

  • avatar

    I don’t want one, but after reading this, I do want a lot of other people to have them! I’m rooting for GM–sort of. Nice work, Martin.
    I still do have very mixed feelings about all the subsidies Uncle Sam is putting into this thing. (I”m not talking about rescuing GM, just the puchase price subsidies.) On the one hand, bad economics. On the other, having some of these things on the road now, before economics drives people to purchase them truly en mass, will help get the kinks out now.

    • 0 avatar
      Stingray

      But the subsidies apply also to Leaf, Prius (less) and the other electric that are sure coming in the future.
       
      I would like to drive both, the current Prius and a Volt back to back and compare.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Great work cutting through the bull. It epitomizes the take-no-prisoners ethic of TTAC.

  • avatar
    dastanley

    Given that I don’t trust GM anyway

    Well that pretty much sums it all up for me.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    I like Volt’s system better than the Prius. I don’t like hybrids, but some solutions are better than the others.
     
    And finally there’s a different technology on the table different than holy HSD. And that is quite healthy

  • avatar
    Whuffo2

    What hasn’t been mentioned yet is the inherent risk of large lithium battery packs. Puncturing or crushing one of the batteries would almost certainly result in a firey melt-down of the batteries.
    We’ve heard about and have seen the results of cell phone batteries burning – now imagine if that battery was the size of the one in the Volt.
    So in the event of a traffic accident, rescuers would face high voltage, gasoline and maybe even a lithium fire. Water won’t put it out – and isn’t a good idea where high voltage is present. I don’t think that a “maintain respectable distance until it burns out and cools” policy will work – so there’s going to have to be a lot of training and equipment upgrades for all the rescue workers.

  • avatar

    “For what it’s worth, the EU certified the Volt (Ampera) for 147 MPG”
     
    Martin, can you send me a link to that EU certification? I’m really curious how it was calculated that an electric vehicle can get 147MPG.

    • 0 avatar
      martin schwoerer

      Hi Lucian, thanks for asking.
      My research in English didn’t reveal anything conclusive. Weird, no?

      Here’s an unofficial link in German:
      http://www.arcor.de/content/auto/testberichte/m_o/
      79377600,4,artikel,Halb+Porsche,+halb+Mofa.html

      The gist:
      ECE-reg R101 prescribes the following procedure. Consumption for the first 60KMs = 0.

      For the next 25 KMs (which is the assumed distance to the next electricity outlet, yes these guys are amusing),
      the Volt’s gasoline consumption is calculated and added into the equation.
      The EU rates the Volt’s fuel consumption *after* depletion of the batteries at 43.55 MPG. (All this is US and not imperial MPG).
      Electricity consumption is calculated at 13 kWh for 100KM, minus charging losses equals 17 kWh/100 KM.
      But this does not find its way into the MPG calculation; it is stated separately.
      Is this way of calculating MPG fair? Probably not, but the EU gas consumption rules are notoriously optimistic anyway. But what is fair?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “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.”
    Perfect. If you work the night shift.

  • avatar
    FleetofWheel

    “We’re talking about a new technological concept that carries hopes and risks. It won’t go away by hating the Volt.”
     
    Given that a good chunk of autophiles on this site and elsewhere disdain the most successful, reliable and in-demand sedan of our era(aka the Toyota Camry), is it any surprise that a funky new tech car from a recently bankrupt company has strong critics?

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    The Volt, as all cars, will sell (or not) on it’s price/perceived value equation. Nothing more.
     
    As such, anyone with their cranium removed from their rectum will instantly know that it will be a flop for GM.
     
    While I agree with many of Martin’s points, at the end of the day, it’ll get smoked by the Prius in the sales department. Perhaps at a Prius pricepoint it may have a chance with fleet buyers, but as it stands, it stands no chance.
     
     
     
     

    • 0 avatar
      protomech

      “As such, anyone with their cranium removed from their rectum will instantly know that it will be a flop for GM.”
      So anyone that places a value on periodic gas-free operation has their head in their ass? Compelling argument, sir.
      Even with government incentives, hybrids make little pure financial sense in the short to medium term. A 45 mpg $25k prius will never pay itself off vs a 30 mpg $10k versa, assuming 200k mile lifetime and reasonable gas prices. A Fusion Hybrid will never pay itself off vs a standard Fusion, etc.
      But. People buy cars for many reasons beyond pure economic or utilitarian reasons — or we’d all be driving those $10k versas. The 2nd gen Prius became popular because it was distinctive, slightly more practical than the 1st gen, and driving one was an instant ticket into the “greener than thou” club. $40k stripper BMWs sell because of the roundel. People commute in trucks that will rarely or never see use as a truck.
      This year, GM only has to sell 10k volts to sell out. They should have no problem selling those to early adopters and the preorder club. Next year, it’s 45k or 60k, and that’ll be the real test of how much value people place on the plug-in hybrid.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      So anyone that places a value on periodic gas-free operation has their head in their ass? Compelling argument, sir.
      protomech,
       
      Hardly the argument at all. Personally, I place a rather high value on periodic/complete plug-in viability. Especially in urban environs.
       
      The important facts-on-the-ground are that the Volt is really ( effen really) expensive for its ‘achievements’ and is easily bested by a slightly-modded-to-be-a-plug-in Prius that costs 10K less.
       
      Please explain how Volt sells to consumers with an IQ over 100. Especially as the tightwads of the  “GM Faithful” will purchase a Cruze for about HALF of what a Volt will set them back.
       
      I agree with you that car purchases are not driven 100% by logic, but please explain how a pathetically committee-bland Volt is a fashion statement.
       
      Please, explain how it works, as I just don’t understand.
       
       

  • avatar
    Fusion

    I do agree with the overall feeling of the article. However, there are a few “facts” in the “Ugly” section, that are basically just wrong.
    The “soot cloud” has found its way into emission regulations. If you are driving behind any new car, releasing a soot cloud during strong acceleration, its broken. The soot regulations for modern Diesels are basically just as (or more) strict than for modern DI-gas engines.
     
    The Volt/Ampera has not been certified “by the EU” (thats not how NEFZ testing works btw) for anything.
     
    75 square meters of PV seems like quite a lot to me. I highly doubt most home owners have enough Roof-Space to do this. Renters are excluded as always (but since they aren’t likely to have outdoor access to electricity anyway…).
     
    The cost-per-mile equation will not really be “good” for anyone in Europe. With the expected prices, a Volt will be about a 15.000€ Premium compared to a Diesel compact. Even if you drive only electric (with cheap electricity – e.g. the current EU-mix for about 15c/kwH) and Diesel prices go up (almost double) to 2€/l. And assuming you need 5,5l/100km (rather much) for the Diesel and only 8.8kWh/60m with the Volt (so always max Range).
    You will have to drive your Volt for 170.000 km to get “into the black”. This is not counting increasing energy prices (the rise in electricity cost here has been almost as high as that of gas/diesel), higher cost for CO2-neutral electricity, the fact that the Diesel is likely to perform better than 5,5l, while the Volt is likely not always to get its maximum range, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      charly

      Taxation is very dependant on country and with it the cost of a vehicle and my prediction is that it will make economic sense in Holland

    • 0 avatar
      martin schwoerer

      Fusion, thanks for your comments.
      Concerning overboost, according to my memory there is in Europe a legal exemption for a temporary increase in torque (or outright power) of up to 30 seconds, when the Diesel engine’s turbo wastegate is opened. I’ll do some more research on this and follow up.
      Certainly, it is easy to notice that most Diesels have deteriorated exhaust characteristics after a few years. The soot cloud I describe in the article is not a fata morgana. It has been reported that at least in Germany, the TÜV tests in regards to Diesels are totally unsophisticated and consist merely of a simple optical check. Adherence to Euro 4 or Euro 5 is not really tested after the car leaves the factory. I’ll post a link concerning this.
      I checked my data concerning the PV. You are right, 75 square is overdoing it. Estimations run from 35 sq meters (e.g. by Arno Mathoy of Brusa) to 60 sp. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!
       

    • 0 avatar
      martin schwoerer

      Fusion, here’s a bit more.
       
      (To be honest, I think this topic justifies an article for itself, and I thank you for bringing the topic to my attention.)
      Euro 1-4 standards have been criticized that they do not reflect real-life driving. Transport and Environment, a green lobbying group, wants standards that do not reflect a theoretical driving cycle, but instead stipulate a maximum amount of emissions, no matter what the driving condition.
      They claim car makers engage in “cycle beating”. This has had the effect that over the past decade, real NOx emissions of Diesels have not been reduced in real-life circumstances.
      Manufacturers also “cycle beat” for particulate emissions. (The effects are not quite as bad as in the case of NOx, but still very apparent).
       
      How can his be? Just look at how cars are tested in Europe: the ECE and EUDECE testing regime makes it easy for manufacturers
      http://www.dieselnet.com/standards/cycles/ece_eudc.html
       
      , since tested cars are driven “gently” and certainly not on overboost.
       
      I think this is scandalously lenient. It also indicates that what I wrote in the article is not bunk. Anyhow, why have different standards for Diesel and petrol cars? The US doesn’t, Japan doesn’t, and Europe only does (I would say) because of political pressure.

  • avatar
    AaronH

    “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.”

    Where do you get this crap? It is something from an envy-ridden infantile.

  • avatar
    A is A

    You like some wheels, you buy ‘em; if you don’t, don’t
    American taxpayers are paying this cars. Unwillingly. This is called “slavery”. The issue of slavery is one those “ideological discussions” you are not interested in.
    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?
    Yes. A much, much better place. Seriously.

  • avatar
    DuManchu

    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.

    This part bugs me.  You say EV is effective at propulsion, then go on to say ICE’s aren’t efficient. You’re comparing two entirely different things and it comes of as dishonest, like you’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

    ICE’s are very effective at providing propulsion, efficient, maybe not, but let’s compare apples to apples here.  I don’t know what the efficiency of an EV motor is, but I’d bet it’s very close to an ICE (in a how long can you run by how much fuel you have consumed way).

    As battery tech gets better I’m sure this will change, but right now, I don’t think you can tout the efficiency of EV’s over ICE’s.
    Other than that, good points.  I still say EV is a ways off till we can eke out 300 mile ranges and 10 minute quick charges (to 80% or so).  When that day comes, sign me up.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “While I agree with many of Martin’s points, at the end of the day, it’ll get smoked by the Prius in the sales department. Perhaps at a Prius pricepoint it may have a chance with fleet buyers, but as it stands, it stands no chance.”

    Hello, any lights lights on in there? The Prius is a gas car with electric assist. The Volt is an electric car with gas assist. That’s why the Volt can go 40 miles wihtout using a drop of fuel while a Prius won’t make out of the driveway. 

    Sounds like your the one with your cranium in your rectum. 

    Great piece BTW!

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Total Imports of Petroleum (Top 5 Countries)
    (Barrels per Day) – July 2010

    CANADA (friendly)
    2,534,000

    MEXICO (friendly)
    1,289,000

    NIGERIA (cordial)
    1,174,000

    VENEZUELA (hostile)
    1,084,000

    SAUDI ARABIA (it’s complicated)
    1,053,000

  • avatar
    geeber

    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.

    Please…maybe they just like a car with fast acceleration and good looks. You’re engaging in the same mindset as those who engage in knee-jerk criticism of the Volt.

    As you said earlier in the article, it’s really none of your busines. I’d suggest that you leave the attempts at mind-reading to the folks at the Psychic Hotline.

  • avatar
    Steven02

    The plug in Prius is going to use the lithium ion batteries.  Toyota, who came out with a statement saying lithium ion batteries weren’t ready, said a few weeks later that they were going to use them in their plug in Prius.  Ford will be using them, so is Nissan.  Sounds like it is getting trust from the auto manufactures.

  • avatar
    Tricky Dicky

    And for China to liberalise the (virtually monopoly) supply of the rare earth metals so necessary for Li-On technology to be dependable…. Toyota are thinking long term.

  • avatar

    The car itself sound fine, but the name would be better for a purely electric car and the Volt looks ugly. But since not that many people share my strict car styling tastes the Volt may save GM.
    I hope GM pulls this off right, it’d be nice to see them do something right for once.

  • avatar
    JustPassinThru

    The Volt is going to be what happens when wishful thinking and government subsidy replace true engineering breakthrough in the consumer-product market.
     
    There are a couple of flaws here not noted.  First – and I’m not a thermal engineer and don’t play on on TTAC – but from what I’ve read, today’s internal-combustion engines have thermal efficiencies that approach 30 percent; not ten-to-fifteen percent.
     
    Second – and nobody likes to mention this – all that “green” electricity, is generated mostly with COAL.  And again, wishing windmills success won’t make them work.  If we “decorated” every hillside in the nation with a wind-far, we’d STILL need backup coal-fired plants – wind is unpredictable and it’s often at highest demand when wind is becalmed.  A coal-fired plant on secondary standby is still producing emissions – a cold startup takes many hours.
     
    The thermal efficiency for a coal, or gas, or oil, consuming plant is less than 10 percent.  And there are HUGE losses in transmitting current over distances – I don’t have the figures handy, but I remember reading that transmitting electric power from Texas to California a few years ago added up to a 90 percent loss.
     
    That is, ten percent of the ten percent actually makes it to the outlet.
     
    There’s other issues, such as the environmental and other costs of using lithium-ion batteries in such large quantities.  Is the cost of handling spent batteries going to become an onerous environmental cost-of-ownership?  There are WAY too many questions here; and no logical answers forthcoming.


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