I heard quite a bit about the Chevy Volt in all forms of media yesterday. The more I heard, the more I realized that commentators and pundits that I consider trustworthy were, in this case, doing a lot of heavy lifting for Chevy in the form of free marketing. I think the Volt will be a good vehicle and an interesting case in how the automotive sector might be shifting. That said, there were a number of claims that I thought needed to be cleaned up.
Let’s start with this NYT article. In the lede: GM puts Volt’s Mileage in triple digits. Well, that’s nice. GM also told Americans two years ago that the truck and SUV markets in the U.S. would keep them on top of the automotive world. How did that turn out exactly? What is the official source of mpg ratings? The E.P.A. – and they haven’t assessed the Volt’s performance yet, mostly because the methodology to do so remains in draft form. But GM is doing what GM should be doing: trying their hardest to build up expectations for the vehicle.
What are those expectations? 230 mpg in city driving. Wowsa! Doesn’t that sound awesome? Actually, it should be 230mpg* in city driving – and that asterisk should be pretty darned big! Drivers might get 230mpg if they drive less than 40 miles from charging station to charging station in laboratory-like conditions: no hills, no A/C or heat, etc.! More likely, drivers in every-day conditions could see ~100mpg performance. Now, that’s nothing to sneeze at. I think it’s a very good half-step forward. But here’s the thing: there are 100mpg cars available today. Modify a factory car today with $10K or so, and 100mpg is already well within reach. So where is the dramatic technological leap forward?
Nissan has countered that it’s upcoming hybrid, the Leaf, could get up to 367mpg. The same limitations I described for the Volt apply here, also. Nissan is also working with Better Place to manufacture and deploy all-electric vehicles, which wouldn’t need any gas whatsoever to drive! Now that’s what I call progress!
So if you’re one of the lucky people that drives fewer than 40 miles per day, what kind of a recharge time would you be looking at? According to GM, it will take 8 hours to recharge the Volt’s batteries fully. I’m a huge proponent of electric vehicles and gas-electric plug-in hybrids. But I realize that I’m in a minority of people that go out of their way looking to employ technologies like this. How will the typical American react when they realize they forgot to charge their vehicle overnight, or if it didn’t recharge all the way, and the gas gets tapped to recharge the battery instead? Well, their gas mileage is going to come in way under what GM is now promising, won’t it? I know, I know. It won’t be the end of the world. But a company can’t rebuild its brand by over-hyping its flagship vehicles’ capabilities. If GM is serious about their image, they’re going to have to be quite realistic in their marketing.
Furthermore, where would folks live that could most benefit from this technology? In an urban setting, of course. But what about those who live in apartments? How are they going to recharge these vehicles? Now, the exact same problem faces other car manufacturers. It seems to me that part of their effort to build the market for these vehicles will be to engage with municipalities to build out recharging locations. Oh, Nissan is already doing that with Better Place. If GM doesn’t want to be left behind, they’re going to have to do the same kind of outreach.
Lastly, I heard about a $40,000+ ticket price. GM is going to have to bring that way down before it can hope to achieve significant market penetration. It’s interesting that some of the same people lauding GM’s effort with the Volt have in the past knocked Toyota and Honda for over-charging for their hybrids, which start out at $25,000. Even with a $7500 rebate from the government, that’s still a $7,000+ price differential. And remember, Toyota has already sold over 1 million Priuses, and just launched the 3rd generation model this year. Toyota has a 10-year edge in manufacturing, marketing, and redesigning their hybrids.
So a lot of important details are lying in wait for the Volt. Proponents would do themselves a huge favor by discussing the benefits and downfalls of the vehicle honestly now.