How GM Didn't 'Lie' About The Volt, And Why The Press Is Wrong

October 11, 2010

You may have seen this morning's media frenzy about General Motors' "lie" about the Volt's ability to directly drive the wheels with its range-extending gasoline engine. What you may not know is that the publications screaming "lie!" are doing little more than running self-serving, tabloid-worthy headlines.

I'm not typically a fan of electric cars, at least in their current states of being. A car that can't go from one town to another across the desert Southwest, or which sees drastically reduced performance depending on the weather isn't really a car, in my book. It's a toy, a status symbol, a raised nose at the "gas guzzlers" that drive by on their way to some distant destination. But the 2011 Chevy Volt doesn't fall into that trap.

What the Volt isn't
In addition to driving 40 miles on nothing but electric power, it carries its own generator on board, making the non-existent national charging network irrelevant. And, as we learned today (though we had off-the-record hints several months ago from some of the Volt's top team members) it can also use the onboard engine to add some direct power to the wheels once the battery is depleted.

For a person that likes cars, appreciates efficiency, and couldn't care less about the definitional semantics the rest of the press is engaged in, that's fantastic. Is it a pure EV? Yes, for the first 40 miles. After that, no, it was never intended to be. Is it a hybrid? Not really, as it can run at highway speeds on nothing but electricity for its stated range of 40 miles, and falls back on mechanical drive power only under certain conditions, which is sort of the inverse of a typical mild hybrid. A plug-in hybrid? Sort of, if you don't mind blurring a few lines.

The question you might be asking now is, "What, then, IS the Volt?" There's an answer for that, but first we need some background.

The "lie"
Sampling the buff book testing, since they got their hands on it early and started the "GM lied" hysterics, the Volt is a family sedan that's capable of real-world mileage in the 30-40 mpg range over a week's period without any recharging. In other words, the first 40 miles aside, the range-extending system delivers performance about on par with real-world results from the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Ford Fusion, and other comparable hybrids.

The problem the buff books (and a few online outlets parroting their stance) have with the newly-announced ability of the Volt to supplement power with mechanical energy directly from the on-board 1.4-liter four-cylinder, is that it's no longer purely electric power driving the wheels.

This is a distinction without a difference. You can burn gasoline to spin a generator to charge the batteries to power the electric motors, or you can partially skip the middle man and send some of that gas-generated power straight to the wheels. Either way, gas is burned to turn the wheels.

We've tried to contact the Volt team to clarify whether sending enough power from the range extender to the batteries to enable pure electric highway cruising would have necessitated more expensive circuitry, more elaborate cooling, or other elements that would put the car out of its target cost range, but they're understandably swamped at the moment. We think it's a reasonable assertion, but we'll update you with the official word from GM as soon as we can.

Let's take a look at some of GM's statements that are ostensibly the source of the "lie." Inside Line cites lines like "The Chevrolet Volt is not a hybrid. It is a one-of-akind, all-electrically driven vehicle designed and engineered to operate in all climates." This statement, in light of the ability of the Volt to add direct drive from the onboard engine, isn't strictly speaking, true. But is it a lie? The Volt is all-electric at any speed for the first 40 or so miles. It's all-electric in charge-sustaining mode at speeds below 70 mph. In only one circumstance (speed-limit or higher highway driving) does it augment electric drive with mechanical. And even when the mechancial engine is kicking in some power the wheels are simultaneously being driven by the electric motors. If it's a lie, it's not one of omission, but of addition.

Jalopnik goes on to construct a quotation from Volt chief engineer Andrew Farah with a strictness that would set even Antonin Scalia's teeth on edge. Quoting Farah saying, "you're correct that the electric motor is always powering the wheels, whereas in a typical hybrid vehicle the electric motor and the gasoline engine can power the wheels. The greatest advantage of an extended-range electric vehicle like the Volt is the increased all electric range and the significant total vehicle range combined," Jalopnik responded with "This meant that the gasoline engine was nothing more than a 'range extender' designed to charge the batteries which would allow the electric drivetrain to continue to move the car — and allow GM to claim that the Volt was something different, something new and something worthy of taxpayer dollars. It turns out that's not correct."

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