How GM Didn't 'Lie' About The Volt, And Why The Press Is Wrong Page 2

October 11, 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Actually, that is still correct. It just does something in addition to Farah's remarks.

What the Volt really is
So what is the Volt? For the first 40 miles (and every 40 miles after that, if you're in the target market sweet spot) it's a pure EV. If you want to treat it as such, it's simply a battery EV with a 40 mile range and a lot of extraneous hardware. Unlike the LEAF or any other number of battery EVs, it won't leave you stranded if you get out too far without an outlet nearby. And unlike any mass-market hybrid, you can simply charge it each night and go about your 40-miles-or-less daily business without ever dipping into the world's diminishing supply of dinosaur juice.

Instead of either the battery-only EVs or the standard/plug-in hybrids, the Volt takes a scene from the heavily-sponsored Transformers movies and becomes an EV that generates its own charge from an on-board generator. Drive it around town, it's still powered purely by the electric motors. It's still an EV, just drawing its power from its own portable grid. Remember--the grid the LEAF and all other EVs pull their power from burns a considerable bit of coal to produce that electricity, too, but you can't put a coal-fired powerplant in the back of a LEAF. Sure, the gasoline engine isn't as efficient or as clean as a powerplant, but now we're talking differences of degree, not of kind.

But imagine now that your Volt has run out of its battery power, and your return trip necessitates some highway driving. Instead of saying "no sir, charge isn't high enough for highway speeds," the system dutifully kicks in and adds a little boost from the combustion engine, allowing you to flow with traffic rather than being an eco-friendly rolling road block. Convenient, confidence-inspiring, and, by the way, something none of those other EVs can do.

Why wait until now to tell us?
So if the Volt's ability to partially drive the wheels through its on-board engine is actually a very useful feature, why did GM hide that fact? The answer lies in patent applications and corporate competitiveness. If GM had laid all its cards on the table at the outset, you can bet Toyota, Honda, Ford, and others would have been hard at work getting a similar concept built before GM could patent the design. The patent acquisition took time--understandable to anyone who knows anything about the patent process. The result? A (relatively) late-in-the-game announcement of the enhanced drive capability.

But GM almost certainly wasn't expecting this sort of negative reaction, particularly from the ostensible enthusiasts at the buff books. In fact, in my interview with Rob Peterson back in June, we touched on this very subject as rumors of a direct-drive solution for the Volt's European cousin, the Ampera, had emerged. He stated only that the Volt would operate purely in electric mode for the first 40 miles, driving at any speed without aid from the combustion engine. As for the possibility of direct drive under other circumstances, Peterson played coy due to the ongoing patent application, but stated clearly that the Volt's powertrain is a "very innovative solution," and that there is "no rush on our part to tip our hand to our competitors." He even said we could expect a good surprise or two as the Volt neared production. We think this is one of them.


Semantic sand castles
Does that mean it's not an all-electric car the rest of the time? No. It just means that in addition to being an all-electric car, it has some hybrid-like capabilities. So Chevy delivers an EV with 340 miles range and adds in a power boost to maintain highway speeds even when the battery is discharged...and the media complains about it? This does not compute.

Put another way, if you drive your LEAF toward the end of its battery range, even if you have a charger waiting at the other end of the road, it'll stick you in a speed-limited "limp home" mode. The Volt's "limp home mode" lets you drive on the freeway at the cost of a little electrical purity. The arbiters of Green Morality may cringe, but at least you'll make it home in time to get the kids to soccer practice.

The "GM lied" fanatics can build their semantic sand castles and kick down GM's own all day long, but at the end of the day, this "lie" means the Volt is more capable than any other vehicle in its class. Is a flashy headline really worth dragging what may be the best EV/hybrid/futuremobile/whatever through the mud over a case of dubitable nomenclature? Apparently, to some, it is.

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