Volt Goes Cross-Country To Show Why It’s A True Paradigm Shift

September 30, 2010

GM announced today that a team of new Chevy Volts will go cross country to show the benefits of its plug-in hybrid. Actually, it is more of an exhibit why the Leaf and other battery-only vehicles are nothing more than toys requiring owners to have another car in the garage.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the days of Prius rule for mileage-minded folks is over. More importantly, the era of gasoline (or diesel)-only travel is winding down. As Bob Lutz told me two years ago: “all of our front-wheel-drive cars will be standardized on Volt technology.”

The game changer is real — and going across America to prove it. Here’s the full release:

Power to the People – Chevrolet Unplugs Volt and Hits the Road
Cross-country drive brings the Chevrolet Volt directly to consumers
2010-09-29

DETROIT — A caravan of Chevrolet Volts will embark on a 3,400-mile, cross-country drive showcasing how easy it will be to live with the world’s first electric vehicle with extended-range capability.

The tour, dubbed “Volt Unplugged,” will give consumers an opportunity to test-drive the Volt, meet the people behind the development of the vehicles – Chevrolet engineers, designers and others – and participate in activities at each stop.

“The Volt Unplugged tour will give people a chance to get behind the wheel of the Volt and find out for themselves what makes this vehicle so special,” said Tony DiSalle, Chevrolet Volt product and marketing director. “This drive will demonstrate the one-of-a-kind capabilities of the Volt, the only electric vehicle able to drive such long distances under a variety of driving conditions and climates without having to stop to recharge.”

The tour is similar to July’s “Freedom Drive,” where the Volt completed a three-day 1,776-mile drive from Austin, Texas to New York City to demonstrate the Volt’s extended-range capability. Stops on the Volt Unplugged tour include:

Oct. 9 and 10 – Seattle
Oct. 13 and 14 – San Francisco
Oct. 16 – 18 – Los Angeles
Oct. 20 – San Diego
Oct. 22 and 23 – San Antonio
Oct. 24 and 25 – Houston
Oct. 28 and 29 – Miami
Oct. 30 – Orlando
Oct. 29 and 30 – Washington, D.C.
Nov. 1 – Raleigh, N.C.
Nov. 5 – 7 – New York City
Nov. 18 – 20 – Chicago
Along the drive, Chevrolet representatives will reach out to local community leaders, schools and consumers to educate each group about the one-of-a-kind characteristics of the Volt and discuss the progress of the nation’s electrical infrastructure. There will also be many opportunities to sit in and/or drive one of six Volts that will be on tour.

Marriott International and its Courtyard, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Residence Inn, SpringHill Suites and TownePlaces Suites hotels will serve as the hotel supplier of the Volt Unplugged Tour. Marriott has a long-standing commitment to protecting the environment, building greener hotels, minimizing energy and water use, reducing impacts along its supply chain and investing in conservation projects worldwide. For customers looking to travel in style with a lighter footprint, the Volt and Marriott offer a great solution.

Fans can follow the Volt’s journey and register for test-drive opportunities on the “Unplugged” tab located at ChevroletVoltAge.com, the Volt’s official social network or on the Chevrolet Volt Facebook page. Participants in the tour will share updates using the Volt’s many online platforms including the @ChevyVolt Twitter account, the Chevrolet Posterous page and the Chevrolet Volt Foursquare account. These platforms will feature photos, videos and text updates to keep consumers updated on the tour.

On a fully charged battery and tank of gas, the Volt has a driving range of hundreds of miles. Because the Volt can use gasoline to create its own electricity in extended-range mode, long trips are possible. The Volt is powered only from electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery for a typical range of 25 to 50 miles depending on terrain, driving technique, temperature and battery age. When the Volt’s battery runs low, a gas engine-generator seamlessly engages to extend the driving range

The Chevrolet Volt starts production at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck facility this fall and will be sold in California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan and Washington D.C. Quantities will be limited. The Volt will be sold nationwide about 12-18 months after start of production.

The Volt’s Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price is $41,000 ($33,500 net of the full federal tax credit, which ranges from $0-$7,500) including a destination freight charge of $720. GM expects to offer qualified lessees a price as low as $350/month with $2,500 down at lease signing, including security deposit based on current conditions, which could vary at time of delivery. The benefit of the $7,500 tax credit is included in the reduced lease payment, with the tax credit going to the lessor. The lease term is 36 months with 12,000 miles per year.

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GM 100 Years Too Late For Its Claimed “First”

January 26, 2010

Corporate PR departments have a habit of making bold statements that are historically inaccurate. General Motors, one of the leaders in fudging history, let out another one today.

The release’s headline was “GM To Be First Major U.S. Automaker to Manufacture Electric Motors”. Really? That’s actually somewhat whimsical, because by the time General Motors came into existence in 1908, electric car companies were already among the major US automakers. Baker Motor Vehicle Company started in Cleveland in 1899. Also based in Cleveland, Rauch & Lang began production of its own car in 1904 after selling Buffalo Electric carriages for two years. Detroit Electric, a product of Anderson Electric Car Company, formed in 1907 — ten years before Chevrolet joined GM.

Historical factoids aside, GM has to be applauded for bringing electric motor production — as well as leadership in plug-in hybrid technology back to the US. While we all know that had electric car development not been abandoned in the years after WWI we’d be far beyond the Volt’s technology, at this point we just need to be happy that the baby steps from tiny companies over the last eight decades have turned into a large jump under the power of a now stronger corporate giant…even one that doesn’t know (or is hoping we have all forgotten) history.


Electric Car Ideas That Are Bound To Fail

October 7, 2009

It seems like just about everyone has a “new idea” that will inevitably make electric cars more popular than those relying on the good old internal combustion engine. Of course, maybe it just seems that there are way too many people trying to reinvent the wheel, because at every function I go to there’s someone telling me about another company or individual who is going to revolutionize electric cars.

Let’s get something straight here folks – there haven’t been any discontinuous innovations in the electric car in over 100 years. There haven’t been any important continuous innovations in nearly 100 years. Even the gas-electric hybrid with regenerative braking was developed when a very famous dead guy, Ferdinand Porsche, was a very young, very alive engineer for Lohner.

Blame low gas prices and Cadillac’s introduction of the electric starter for all of this. Prior to the debut of Kettering’s self-starter as standard equipment for the “Standard of the World” automaker in 1912, thousands of people drove electric cars. Not coincidentally, 1912 was the peak year for sales of electric vehicles. In fact, electric cars were a larger percentage of the market in 1910 than now.

Demographically speaking, most electric car owners/drivers were urban women who used the cars for shopping. Considering that starting a car used to require a strong pull on a large crank while standing directly in front of the vehicle, it is not surprising that women tended to like the quiet reliability of flipping a switch inside an electric car. As for the quiet, powerful steam cars – these often took nearly a half-hour to warm up, after which the right set of circumstances could set the whole system on fire like Nikki Sixx’s boots during early Motley Crue concerts.

It’s only recently that companies have again thought about electric cars. Since people aren’t really that interested in history, they’ve decided to reinvent the wheel or bark up trees that have long been deemed worthless.

Here are some of the “revolutionary” ideas about which people have told me while at dinners or other functions:

The “battery swap” concept: There are a lot of people trying to do this, but the most visible is from Shai Agassi, an Israeli guy who believes that the key to electric car acceptance is to have battery stations where motorists simply pull out the depleted tray of batteries in their cars and swap for charged batteries. Sounds like a great way to overcome the range issue, right? It’s just like barbeque propane tanks – when you’re out you swap, correct?

No – not really. In fact, the relationships of car versus propane tank is about as valid as the shared characteristics of Rush Limbaugh and Anne Hathaway. I have a better shot of winning the Formula One Driver’s Championship and America’s Top Model in the same year than this becoming a reality.

Let’s tackle the minor challenges first:

  • Unlike propane tanks, batteries – even lithium ion (or any yet-to-be invented cell made out of a combination of unobtanium and whatever pops out of a moon crater explosion) lose quality over time. You drop off your perfectly good new batteries and possibly get a tray of old crappy ones in return. Instead of getting a 50-mile range, you get 18 miles and the oh-no light comes on – which, incidentally, you scream at, because this warning light is taking much needed juice away from propelling your ass back to scream at the place that gave you these used-up batteries in the first place.

  • Distribution: Then you have to find a station with batteries. Not only are battery packs much, much, much more expensive than metal propane tanks, but also they are a lot heavier and more space-consuming. Don’t think that every Kwick-E-Mart is going to invest in a large extra building and employ another foreign-born better-educated-than-your-average-banker worker to lug 200-pound battery packs all day.

Now, it’s time to bring up the toughest barrier:

  • Standardization: As it stands, no single electric car or hybrid shares the same battery type/number, connectors (and most importantly) packaging with another non-badge-engineered vehicle. For instance, Tesla uses thousands of modified laptop battery cells, which is totally different from the dozens of lead-acid batteries in many of the electric tin-can commuter boxes I see around my parts of town. Considering that automakers have found six different ways of manually shifting an automatic (push up on a stick to upshift, pull down on a stick to upshift, push right on a stick to upshift, pull the right paddle to upshift, push the right button on a steering wheel to upshift, or BMW’s push either thumb paddle to upshift – not to mention the 7-Series unique one-button to downshift) ever expecting the companies to unite and tackle the almost impossible task of standardizing on a single battery technology that fits (and complies with safety regulations) in everything from an SUV to a sports car is about as big of an ask as requesting your spouse arrange for your birthday a three-way with you, her and the entire San Diego Chargers’ cheerleading squad.

“Electric Car Only” Charge-While-You Shop Parking Spaces: Some companies exist to print signs and install charging stations for restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores. In some cases, these charging stations are little more than standard outlets. In any event, even with high-voltage charging stations, most cars get little more than a mile’s worth of juice in a standard ten-minute excursion into a store. If it’s a 110-volt outlet, ten minutes on the charger won’t give any electric car enough juice to make it out of the parking lot! In other words – it’s snake oil, which might explain why the nutritional supplement store I passed the other day had one such spot.

And before you write in and talk about real high-voltage charging stations in office parking garages and park-and-ride lots: yes, these are great ideas. I do a) believe they need to be installed and b) predict that their adoption and use will be proportional to increases in peak electricity charges and brownouts in California.

The Back-Alley “Plug-In” Conversion: A friend of mine is renting space in his warehouse to a company that expects to get rich installing plug-in electric engines into existing new cars. My advice was to get as much rent up front as possible.

Where to start with this? First, these guys void the new car manufacturer’s warranty. Second, low production – no matter how careful, means poor quality control. Finally, the result is a shorter range at a higher cost per mile than the new car prior to removing the gas engine.

There are some businesses doing decent plug-in conversions for the Prius. Their corporate lifespan is limited, though, since Toyota has already committed to creating plug-in hybrids of its own.

At the end of the day, the only thing that will improve the acceptance of the electric car is to cure what killed it in the first place: range. These small companies will exist in the margins for a year or two more, but then the Chevy Volt technology will certainly kill most of them. I say Volt “technology” rather than just the Volt itself, because the plug-in engine/motor that is the basis of the Volt model will be used in all of GM’s front-wheel-drive vehicles.

When consumers can buy a single car that goes 40 miles on electric and then also go 350 miles on single tank of gas (plus fill up at any existing gas station to continue), it accomplishes what electric cars never could: kill two birds with one stone. The Volt will give electric-only benefits for those who want it without forcing them to exchange batteries, get some shadetree-mechanic conversion…or also own a standard car if they need to go on a road trip.

The Volt might not be that huge of a jump in technology, especially given what the industry had 100 years ago, but it’s a good small step in the right direction that will result in large change in gas prices (good), electric prices (bad), electric production challenges (really bad), and domestic automotive industry growth (very good). It might do very little for the environment, as production of electricity is like Mother Earth smoking ten packs a day and occasionally shooting heroin with the odd nuclear plant. At least it makes oil production a little less important on the world stage.


GM Teams With Power Companies To Make Plug-ins A Reality

July 23, 2008

This is not necessarily unexpected news, but key to the success of upcoming plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt. It’s also another reason why it takes big corporations like GM with enough influence (and promises of huge increases in revenues) to create this type of drastic investment/change in infrastructure…as well as modification of consumer behavior.

General Motors and Electric Utility Industry Launch Major Collaboration to Commercialize Plug-in Vehicles

· Paves way for customers to realize the benefits of plug-in electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue Plug-in Hybrid

· Further progress on road to electrification of the automobile

San Jose, CALIF – General Motors announced today that it will collaborate with the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) – more than 30 of the top electric utilities in the United States and Canada — to accelerate the introduction of plug-in electric vehicles.

General Motors will work with EPRI and the utility companies on everything from codes and standards to grid capability to ensure that when the Volt goes to market, the infrastructure is ready – and customers can realize the full potential of these revolutionary vehicles as soon as they leave the showroom.

Details of the alliance, which is by far the largest and most-comprehensive between an automaker and the electric utility industry, were announced today in San Jose during the Plug-In 2008 Conference.

Among the many things the coalition will address include ensuring safe and convenient vehicle charging, raising the public awareness and understanding of plug-in electric vehicles, and working with public policy leaders to enable a transition from petroleum to electricity as a fuel source.

“Together with EPRI and the utility companies, we can transform automotive transportation as we know it, and get our nation and the world past oil dependence – and heading toward a future that is electric,” said Jon Lauckner, GM VP of Global Program Management. “This group is taking significant steps toward making electric vehicles a reality and in helping our customers enjoy the tremendous benefits these vehicles will provide.”

Using electricity to power vehicles such as the Volt and the Vue Plug-in is attractive to GM because it can simultaneously reduce the industry’s dependence on petroleum and vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers will also see a tremendous benefit as the cost per equivalent mile of a vehicle powered by electricity is roughly one-fifth of the cost per mile when powered by gasoline.

The coalition of utility companies plays a critical role in developing universal technical standards that will facilitate ease of use and commercial feasibility of electric vehicles.

“EPRI is pleased to collaborate with GM and utility leaders in electric transportation to work together in advancing plug-in hybrid electric vehicle transportation,” said Arshad Mansoor, Vice President of EPRI’s Power Delivery & Utilization sector. “This collaboration is critical in the development of standards that will lead to the widespread use of electricity as a transportation fuel.”

Last month, GM, along with EPRI, received a conditional award from the U.S. Department of Energy to create a plug-in demo program using the Saturn Vue.

In June, GM’s Board of Directors committed to production of the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle — due in showrooms in late 2010. And, at the 2008 North American International Auto Show, GM announced its intention to produce a plug-in hybrid electric version of the Saturn Vue. Given the huge potential vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid offers for fuel economy improvement, these programs have emerged as top priorities at GM.

“This coalition shares a vision of bringing plug in vehicles to market so we can accelerate the use of electricity as a substitute for gasoline,” said Lauckner. “We are focused on creating affordable, highly desired vehicles that will take advantage of the grid – and providing accessible, reliable, convenient low cost electricity to plug-in customers. Collectively, we can realize all of the benefits of the plug-in revolution.”


Current Electric Cars…And Why We Don’t Drive ‘Em

June 30, 2008

Everyone seems to have that one person in their life that seems to drive them up the wall by questioning everything commonly deemed logical. In my life this person is a nice 50-year-old boy named Danny.

Danny is actually easy to sum up: the favorite cars he has owned have been his Karmann Ghias, Maserati Biturbo sedan and his current Checker Marathon wagon. Danny has a degree from Harvard and served for many years as a telecommunications consultant. One might say that he’s smart, but just a tad eccentric.

Danny is a strong advocate of electric cars. He has bent my ear regarding this topic for years. Unfortunately, Danny just doesn’t “get it” when it comes to the reasons why electric cars haven’t yet caught on.

Every single time we discuss the acceptance of electric transport he questions why people don’t buy current electric-only cars. His rationale — since the average 40-mile range is fine for almost 90-percent of the average urban worker’s travel, everyone should own one.

My standard line is that people often purchase new vehicles to accommodate their perception of how they intend to use them, rather than the reality of how they indeed will. This explains why so many people bought SUVs and trucks despite using the cargo, hauling or 4WD capabilities.

The scary reality with the current electric cars is that if one needs to exceed 40 miles just once, then another car is needed. Unlike the move away from SUVs with an average consumer needing the capabilities less than once per year, a transition to electric-only is faced with an average user target that actually needs to exceed 40 miles in a day several times per month.

Danny’s follow-up is: when you need to do that, switch with your spouse or significant other. He doesn’t seem to understand that many people either aren’t married, don’t allow their spouses to drive their car (my wife can’t drive a stick), or have a spouse who also routinely drives beyond the range of a traditional electric vehicle.

So that leaves the option of owning two cars for one driver. Despite the low sub-$15,000 price point of many current electric car options, maintaining two cars can be quite expensive. Insurance is nasty and cars require maintenance even if they sit. Furthermore, for those in apartments and condos, additional parking can be a significant hurdle.

There is also no way around the fact that current electric cars are made to the standards of low-volume producers. Think Lotus in the 1950s, Lamborghini in the 1950s or De Lorean in the 1980s. This means inferior quality control, lack of available service and sub-standard safety. I’d hate to see what the pedal boxes and b-pillars look like after these little pieces of tin are subjected to front, offset and side impact testing.

I told Danny about my discussion with GM’s Bob Lutz about the future of plug-in hybrids that starts with the Chevy Volt in about 16 months. The Volt does the 40 miles on electric power, while providing the flexibility of running for another few-hundred miles on gas or E85. It also will meet federal crash standards and be built to the level of quality of a high-volume producer. (Chevy’s quality looks like Rolls Royce’s when compared to most boutique automakers.)

But Danny can’t see the justification for the $30,000-plus it will take to buy a Chevy Volt, when there are electric-only cars available for less than half. Chalk it up to heart over mind, because he still doesn’t see why anyone would view any of the aforementioned issues as non-starters for owning a pure electric vehicle.

This is case and point to the lack of traction current electric car manufacturers have in the contemporary market. Even though gas prices are high and interest is rising, the target is still made up of small vocal group whose members are quick to talk about how everyone should be driving electric cars by small volume producers, but slow to spend their own money following their own advice.

Maybe Danny will understand what it takes to succeed with an automotive product when the big automakers start selling millions of long-range plug-in electric/gas hybrids like the Volt, and the little oddities he loves so dearly (but still hasn’t purchased an example of) wind up as footnotes in automotive history books.