Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Game Changer - Chevy Volt, Car of the Year

UPDATE: Eli generally stays away from politics at Rabett Run, but this Whitehouse Whiteboard by Austin Goolsbee, the Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers, does mention the Chevy Bolt Volt at the end. More seriously, this is the sort of thing that we need to explain climate change.

Motor Trend Magazine, a place where gearheads hang out, has named the Chevy Volt car of the year. Increasingly autos are software platforms with motors, and the Volt is the culmination of twenty and more years of SAE excellence

"This is a fully developed vehicle with seamlessly integrated systems and software, a real car that provides a unique driving experience. And commuters may never need to buy gas!" . . . .
While it is entirely possible that a consumer able to use the Volt in pure EV mode most of the time could use no more than a tank of gas-9.3 gallons-a year (because as noted earlier the car will automatically start the internal-combustion engine at regular intervals to keep the fuel system functional and the gas fresh), it is not a perpetual-motion machine. It requires energy to move. Our testing showed that, in EV mode, the Volt uses energy at the rate 32.0 kW-hr/100 miles or a notional 105 mpg (based on the EPA calculation that a gallon of gas contains 33.7 kW-hr of energy). The internal-combustion engine sips gas at the rate of about 40 mpg.
It cannot be said often enough how modern control software can increase efficiency in mundane things such as autos and elevators. This is the path forward as Motor Trend recognizes
The more we think about the Volt, the more convinced we are this vehicle represents a real breakthrough. The genius of the Volt's powertrain is that it is actually capable of operating as a pure EV, a series hybrid, or as a parallel hybrid to deliver the best possible efficiency, depending on your duty cycle. For want of a better technical descriptor, this is world's first intelligent hybrid. And the investment in the technology that drives this car is also an investment in the long-term future of automaking in America.

Moonshot. Game-changer. A car of the future that you can drive today, and every day. So what should we call Chevrolet's astonishing Volt? How about, simply, Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year


Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm being uncharitable but I find much of the acclaim for the Volt to be simply hype, written by people who have never owned an electric vehicle, and who may never even have driven an electric vehicle - except perhaps a golf cart. I have driven a Volt and believe me it is no great thrill. It may well be the Edsel of the New Millenium.

My main complaint about the Volt is that it is not an EV - it's a plug-in hybrid. It has a tailpipe for crying out loud! Chevy's assertion that it is an "Extended Range Electric Vehicle" is disingenuous at best.

Next, how can it be a 'Moonshot' when real EVs have been available since the the 1990s? Remember the EV1 that GM, Chevrolet's parent company, made and destroyed back in those Good Old Days (1996-1999)? Now there was a breakthrough vehicle worthy of the term 'Moonshot'. But even the EV1 had contemporaries. Toyota made the RAV-4 EV (1997-2003), Ford made the Ranger EV (1998-2002), and even Chevy made S-10EV all-eletric pickup trucks from 1997-1998. Include more recent EVs and the list of OEM EVs becomes pretty long. Look on eBay and you'll find a dozen or so EVs listed for auction, and most of them for prices well below the forty grand the VOLT will set you back. Chevy is mooning us, alright, but not in a positive way.

For disclosure, I own three cars - a 1999 Ford Ranger EV named 'Sparky', a 2004 Honda Insight which at 55mpg is my gas-guzzler, and a 1958 MGA Coupe currently being converted to all electric. I am a complete supporter of EVs, and of hybrids, but for Chevy to offer a pimped-out hybrid for $40,000 and pretend it's an EV, well, that's just insulting.

Road Worrier Phillip

CapitalClimate said...

Georgie "F" Won't sez the Volt is just a socialist plot by Gubmint Motors:
A car powered by whale oil with tallow headlamps, now that would be a real breakthrough!

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Uh, Eli? That's "Chevy" Volt.

And Road Warrior? I really disagree with you. The other cars you mention were pure EV's, but they were not production cars -- they were prototypes. The problem that the Volt solves is, as they are calling it in the press today, "range anxiety". For example, should I want to buy a Nissan Leaf, I could use it pretty much every day and be perfectly happy. My round trip commute is about 25 miles. But if I want to take a trip down to Yellowstone, forget about it. My typical day trip down there is a couple of hundred miles and a pure EV won't work, and since I don't need two cars in my household, but I do need the longer range more than occasionally (once or twice a month) I need the extra range. A Volt, or something like it, is a very good answer to the dilemma. This is not about philosophical purity, it is about what people might actually buy.

In this respect, the Volt is a game changer. Here is a car which most people can use as an EV in everyday operation, yet when they need to cross the county line they can do it w/o worry. The fully realized PHEV concept here is a new way to look at automotive propulsion systems. That is the moodshot. Now just as there was a lot of question if the real moonshot would work (and, BTW, it almost didn't) there is still a lot of question if the Volt will ultimately be successful in the marketplace. I do think that the concept will eventually be successful in the end.

David B. Benson said...

Game changer? Nope, it'll allow the great unwashed to continue to play the personal transportation game for awhile longer.

Same game, different type of automobile.

EliRabett said...

Chevy. OK thanks, Eli thinks

Anonymous said...

Dear Eli

I am currently doing a PhD assessing the effect of introducing EVs into New Zealand. My research comprises using stated choice and multinomial logit models to assess the probability that EVs will be bought when they are available.

My preliminary results indicate that Kiwis want the PHEVs more than the full EVs and are prepared to buy them. There is a real concern about the future cost of petrol (gas) in NZ.

My early research also indicates that assuming people only charge over night the effect on NZ’s petroleum consumption will be significant over 20 years. This is because 50% of daily travel in NZ is 37 km or less.

Cheers Doug

Brian said...

Worth noting that Motor Trend made the same call for the 2004 Prius, which despite recent hiccups has been a breakout success and helped bridge people to a broader readiness for plugin hybrids (the broader market that Road Warrior isn't recognizing).

Let's hope Motor Trend gets it right again.

Anonymous said...

Rattus, first let me say that I've followed your comments for months and I have tremendous respect for your climate science knowledge, but I believe that you are wrong about the Volt, and misinformed about earlier production EVs.

I won't bore this forum with a long history of EVs because there is ample information available for anyone interested - but the EVs I mentioned in my earlier note (EV1, Ranger EV, RAV-4 EV, S-10EV, etc) weren't prototypes, they were factory vehicles produced to satisfy the California CARB regulations in effect at that time. I don't know all of the production figures but I do know that about 1,500 Ranger EVs were built. And that Ford offered the options available on contemptorary ICE Ranger models. But when the CARB rules relaxed in 2002, the automakers stopped production of EVs in a cold-blooded assessment that they would reap greater profits making ICE cars.

Of course the Volt eliminates 'Range Anxiety' - it's a hybrid. As long as it is gassed up, its range is essentially unlimited. I've driven my hybrid Honda across the US, and I'm sure many Prius and Insight owners have done the same. So what? The Volt may be the first prduction PHEV, but Chevy didn't originate the concept. Thousands of Priuses (Priusi? sp?) have been converted to PHEV. There are complete kits available for about $5K to upgrade a Prius so that local travel is on batteries alone, with the ICE coming on only for longer trips. Isn't that the capability that Chevy is trying to claim as unique to the Volt?

Let me try to frame my distaste for the Volt in another way. Chevy (GM) is pricing the Volt at around $40K - roughly twice the showroom price for a Prius or Insight. Ignoring the fact that that price makes it unaffordable to a large share of US consumers, is its utlity twice that of other hybrids? Really?

Chevy glosses over the high list price for the Volt by telling potential buyers about the $7,500 tax credit presently available, making the net price of the Volt about $32K. But that tax credit is really just a taxpayer subsidy and it is my opinion that those limited subsidy funds would be better spent on true EVs.

But I suppose that if buying Volts makes people feel better about BAU and burning fossil fuels then then it's a great product, right? After all, what's the worst that could happen under BAU?

Road Worrier Phillip

EliRabett said...

Sorry, doubling or tripling fleet mileage is not BAU

Anonymous said...

Nice technology in the Volt, but priced too high. When it comes down into the mid $20s it will be time for a look.

Proud owner of a 2010 VW Jetta TDI all the bells and whistles for $24K. Averaging 44MPG overall.

Celery Eater

Marlowe Johnson said...


I think you raise some very legitimate issues. I was at an EV conference the other day and one of the panels had all of the OEMs with an EV presence there (GM, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi). What was interesting to me was each of them are taking different appraoches; at one end you've got nissan and mitsubishi who are betting on the all ev 100mile range, the volt is in the middle at 40 miles, and the toyota plug-in at roughly 15 miles. At the end of the day the market(s) will decide who made the best bet. I suspect that the pure evs will be more successful in europe and asia while the conventional hybrids and phevs will do comparatively better in the n american market.

I agree with you that the Volt isn't as novel as some of the press would seem to suggest. However, it does represent a fundamentally different approach to the conventional hybrid or retro-fitted plug-in and there is lots of software innovation (as noted in this post) that puts it in a different class. Now you may not think that these differences amount to much, but I think it's an area where reasonable people can disagree.

Whether or not it is 'worth' $40k is another question altogether, but your contention that it is overvalued, which seems to be implied in your criticism, is of course a subjective question. Utility, after all, is not a one dimensional concept.

One of the questions that came up was whether or not any of the manufacturers were planning on offering multiple battery size/range options for their vehicles. if we can do it for hard drives, why not vehicles?

Anonymous said...


Tripling, or even doubling, fleet mileage would be great - but do you really believe enough $40K Volts will be sold to do that? The 2001 EPA estimate for the US was 22.1 mpg for passenger cars and 17.6 mpg for light trucks (the category which includes SUVs).

Raising the average to 44 mpg would take consumers replacing millions of SUVs and older gas-guzzlers with Chevy Volts. And the trade-ins would have to be scrapped to retire them from the fleet. Given the uproar we saw over the 'Cash for Clunkers' program, I just don't see that happening.

Tripling the fleet average to, say, 66 mpg would be even more unlikely. But I would love to see some evidence that I'm being overly pessimistic. If you could give me the numbers to show how it could be done, or point me towards a study, I would be very appreciative.

Road Worrier Phillip

EliRabett said...

Moreover, it is likely that the price will fall as production ramps up. As with computers, the cutting edge one is expensive, and the "older" models fall down the curve. As Marlowe says, part of the art of sales is to sell you something more expensive because it provides cache as well as utility. See Apple/Mercedes

EliRabett said...

Average passenger car mileage was 14 in 1960, less before. Time helps. That and higher gasoline prices, and a focused campaign to get rid of clunkers.

Marlowe Johnson said...

Philip see here for data on trends in the u.s.

GRLCowan said...

A car that's a pure EV for most (shortish) round-trips from and to the garage socket, and can go 400 miles? Definitely a new thing, definitely a good thing.

(How fire can be domesticated)

John Mashey said...

The Rabett is getting wild with spelling.
First we get Chevie, which reads like a French Chevy.
Then we get
"part of the art of sales is to sell you something more expensive because it provides cache as well as utility"

I've helped sell many computers with cache memories, because they actually do make a huge performance difference. As for cachet, well, at SGI, I think we didget extra money because our computers were Indigo or other colors. :-)

David B. Benson said...

"Car Talk"

Anonymous said...

"...most of the time could use no more than a tank of gas-9.3 gallons-a year..."

Dang! I hafta add Sta-Bil to my car now too!

arch stanton

Rattus Norvegicus said...


I always get upset about GI's saying they found a weapons "cachet" when what they mean is a weapons "cache".

cce said...

The Volt is also "Automobile of the Year" from Automobile Magazine.

And please, no comparisons to the EV1 as if it were a real car. It was a two seater with a limited range. Total production was about 1100 cars and you couldn't buy one. GM expects to build 55,000 Volts in the next two years, which it will have no trouble selling regardless of how "expensive" some might believe it to be. This is the first mass produced, no compromise electric vehicle and the technology will only get better. Yes it's a game changer.

Anonymous said...

The commentors have made some interesting points. Thanks, Marlowe, for the interesting link. I am curious though, how many of the people reading this are going to reach into their pockets and actually put down $40,000 for a Volt? Or is your enthusiasm only abstract, and the Volt only a good idea for 'others'?

Road Worrier Phillip

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Were I in the market for a new car I would certainly be considering the Volt. However, since I will drive my current car into the ground I don't expect to be in the market for around 10 years when this technology will have presumably matured.

Mark said...

So, maybe the real reason Republicans opposed the GM bailout and preferred the automaker should go out of business is because of their blind hatred of anything that suggests going easy on the environment.

But seriously, as my little pickup goes beyond 300,000 miles, I'm very disappointed that the newer models appear to get worse mileage rather than better (I expected some improvement over 14 years).

Marlowe Johnson said...


If i thought i could get my hands on one in the next 2 years yes. but i suspect that this will be difficult given expected supply and demand. we'll see.

dhogaza said...


"But seriously, as my little pickup goes beyond 300,000 miles, I'm very disappointed that the newer models appear to get worse mileage rather than better (I expected some improvement over 14 years)."

Remember that EPA mileage estimation methodology has been changed many times during the time that including them in the sticker has been required. Don't necessarily assume that you're comparing apples to apples. This is even more true if you're comparing your actual mileage with EPA estimates (past, current, or future).

On the other hand, I get the same feeling when I compare what my 1990 Acura Integra gets on the highway compared to EPA estimates for similarly-sized current vehicles. On the other hand, I've driven with mileage in mind my entire life, it's always been a bit of a game with me (can't wait until I own a car with a smart console telling me how I'm doing every moment in time!)

dhogaza said...

"The commentors have made some interesting points. Thanks, Marlowe, for the interesting link. I am curious though, how many of the people reading this are going to reach into their pockets and actually put down $40,000 for a Volt? Or is your enthusiasm only abstract, and the Volt only a good idea for 'others'?"

I'm not interested in paying $40,000 for *any* car, this car isn't being marketed to me. Note that the PHEV aspect of the car isn't by any means the only reason for the high sticker price. It's being marketed to people who typically buy cars that cost more than I'll pay.

That's one of the very interesting things about it - they're targeting the mainstream Red State GM cushmobile market, not the ecofreak or econobox-buyer market. They're mainstreaming it, not niche marketing it. Yes, they won't make all that many in the first couple of years, but the direction they're going should be obvious.

cce said...

The next time I'm in the market for a new car, I can't imagine not buying a series hybrid. On the other hand, I can't imagine a time when I will be able to afford a new car of any kind.

Regarding the efficiency of new vehicles, cars are both heavier and more powerful than they were in decades past, which is the primary reason for the reduction in mileage since the mid '80s (the last time CAFE standards were updated). The new standards will raise efficiency in all vehicle classes.

EliRabett said...

cc, cars are a hell of a lot lighter than in the sixties and seventies driven by the mileage standards. For one thing the materials are lighter, composites, aluminum and such. Take a look at this baby

cce said...

CAFE didn't start until the mid '70s. Cars lost weight until the mid '80s, but since then they have gotten way heavier.

But if you want to compare even older cars, new cars still have them beat. Cars today are packed to the gills with safety equipment, sound deadening and creature comforts. Compact cars today weigh 2700 to 3000 lbs, which is heavier than Mustangs, Falcons, and Valiants of yore. The modern analog to that Plymouth would be a Chrysler 300 or Dodge Charger, both of which weigh up to 4000 lbs. SUVs and minivans have largely replaced station wagons. Almost all pickups today have four doors and have frames that are truly gigantic. Park a classic pickup next to a pickup of the same size (i.e. half ton, 3/4 ton) and there's no comparison.

David B. Benson said...

Bicycles weigh even less.

clearscience said...

I love Austin Goolsbee. Enjoyed his interviews with Jon Stewart.

Rattus Norvegicus said...


You are very right, especially on the smaller cars. But I find it interesting to compare the value offered to the consumer for a mileage champ. In this case I think the comparison would be a Toyota Prius vs. a Chevy Sprint from the late 1980's to the mid 1990's. The Sprint/Metro was quite fuel efficient, 35 city/45 highway, it did this with a noisy and vibration prone inline 3 which produced a massive 55hp. It could barely get out of it's own way. In addition, the Sprint was very lightly built and was described in the automotive press of the day as being a "penalty box". The Prius on the other had has a full complement of modern safety features, is comfortable to drive and has enough power to get out of it's own way (gen II has 110hp, Gen III 134hp). It also gets ~40 highway and ~50 city, better mileage than the old Sprint. Which would you rather drive?

In my mind this is a testament to the improvements in drive train technology that Toyota (and of course Honda with the Insight and the CRZ and Ford with their hybrids) have made. It is possible to make a car which is exceptionally efficient and provides the safety and comfort which consumers desire in today's market. They Chevy Volt is the latest entry in this market, and to my mind at least the most interesting.

Me, I'm a member of the cult of Subaru (hey, it's snowing to beat the band here and temperature is about 7F right now) and hope that by the time I buy my next car that they will have an interesting hybrid option, or at least competitors will have an interesting 4WD product to consider. If a series hybrid like the Volt but w/4WD is available, it will be high on my list.

Oh, and David, bicycles are lighter. However in a city which is infested with cyclists (and not in a bad way) I saw one guy riding a bike tonight. My thought: that's one tough MF. It's so cold here that people weren't even walking!

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Road Worrier,

You are right that I am probably not as aware of prior EV's as you, but none of the vehicles you've cited were produced in quantities of much more than 1500. Smells like a prototype to me.

The Volt is slated for a production run of 11,000 in the first year and given the positive market reaction that will probably go up with battery availability, afterall GM is currently building factories to produce batteries for this model (and I presume future models). Should this technology prove to be successful in the market, and the initial reaction seems good, it will be interesting to see how it develops.

Unlike you, I am not disappointed that the Volt is not a pure EV. It is an intelligent compromise since I do not currently see a clear path to rapid (say 10 minute or less) recharging for pure EVs. The EV1 at it's best only got 150 miles to the charge (I actually had thought is was closer to 200, but WTH). The limitations on range and recharging time for pure EVs is a big problem to acceptance in the larger market. The Volt, and series hybrid technology in general, fills this gap. It makes a car which runs in an electric mode most of the time for most people work. For those times when you run far from home it has a very efficient ICE. What is wrong with that?

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your comments. I feel that you've made some very good points, and I also feel that I've done a poor job of expressing my concerns about the Chevy Volt.

I am not disappointed that the Volt is a hybrid and not an EV - I'm disappointed that GM, through its subsidiary Chevrolet, is hyping the Volt as an EV instead of being honest with its marketing and calling it a PHEV. I love hybrids. I've had my Honda Insight for almost seven years and I really can't imagine going back to a conventional ICE auto. I'll probably continue to own a hybrid, even though I own one EV and expect to own others, for precisely the reason you mention - for trips longer than 100 miles or so hybrids are a better choice than EVs.

As for the EVs made during the 1997 - 2003 period, I don't feel that it is fair to blame consumer demand for the low production numbers. Those numbers reflect supply limits, not demand limits. The auto manufacturers made the choice to do the minimum possible to satisfy the California CARB rules and, when the rules relaxed, GM certainly did all it could to eliminate private ownership of the EV1s it had produced.

I'm just thankful Ford had a more enlightened attitude and I've been able to own and enjoy one of their Ranger EVs (which my wife named Sparky). Sparky is dependable 'around-town' transportation and a blast to drive. At eleven years of age and more than 34,000 miles it is just now approaching its first scheduled service - and that is just a transaxle oil change. It is hard for a car dealership to keep its mechanics busy when EVs have that kind of reliability. But I digress.

Since this thread opened, I've received the November issue of CurrentEVents, the newsletter of the Electric Auto Association, and it has several articles and columns on the Volt. So lets look at some of the Chevy claims and see how they hold up to examination.

Chevy claims an efficiency of 230 mpg for the Volt. But Popular Mechanics magazine found that in unsupervised tests the Volt got between 32 mpg and 36 mpg, not quite as efficient as a Prius. Those figures are consistent with the claim of a 300 mile range. And if the 230 mpg claim had any truth, a driver could start a trip with a full charge and a full tank and not need to refuel for over 2,000 miles. So I think it safe to label Chevy's efficiency claims for the Volt as hype.

Chevy also claims the Volt is the first production serial hybrid in which the ICE is only used to generate electricity to charge the battery, not to drive the wheels. But it turns out that's not true. The Volt, like the Prius, contains a planetary gear system in which power from the ICE is coupled to the wheels. The only difference is that in the Volt the ICE is connected to the ring gear while in the Prius the ICE drives the wheels through the planetary carrier. Not a serial hybrid after all. So again it is safe to label this claim is just hype.

There are other claims about the Volt that fail to hold up under examination. Chevy is being disingenuous at best. Bottom line - anyone who buys a Volt will be getting a hybrid with a large battery pack, with lower efficiency than a Prius, but with about twice the price tag. Caveat Emptor.

I urge everone to exercise the same cautious skepticism about automakers' claims you would about climate blog claims. Don't blindly accept anything, particularly something that sounds too good to be true. Educate yourselves on the material and look for independent, objective data when possible.

Road Worrier Phillip

cce said...

The Volt's "mileage" depends entirely on how far you drive it between charges. If you commute less than ~40 miles a day, the only time you would have to put gas in the tank would be to keep it fresh (one tank per year).

If you assume 35 mpg in charge sustaining mode, and you drove it 150 miles, you would burn just over 3 galons of gas, for an overall effective mileage of 48 mpg. If you drove 300 miles, this would be reduced to 40 mpg.

But people do not typically drive this far. People spend the most time commuting. They will usually stay under the 40 mile all EV range, in which case the gas mileage is infinite. Occasionally, they will go beyond that limit, in which case the mileage (for the additional distance) will be about 35 mpg. If you drove 20 miles per day every day for a month, you would burn no gas. Then you might drive 150 miles, burning about 3 gallons, or 239 miles per gallon for that month. Normal drivers will have no trouble seeing gas mileage figures in the hundreds.

Unknown said...

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