THE moment I realized that driving the new Chevrolet Volt was fundamentally a new experience was not when I first turned it on and went around the block. Yes, it was whisper-quiet, powered by its 16-kilowatt-hour, 400-pound battery, but it still felt like a “normal” automobile. And it wasn’t when I drove the 100 or so miles from Manhattan to Southampton, N.Y., either. Although the battery’s range is only about 40 miles, the car kept going even after the battery was drained; it just switched to its gasoline engine, in a transition so seamless I barely noticed it. It wasn’t even when I arrived in Southampton that evening and plugged a special cord into an electrical outlet in the garage, to recharge the battery overnight.
No, what made the experience truly different — and what got me thinking about the Volt’s potential to change the way we think about gas consumption — was what happened after that.
You know the story of the Volt, don’t you? As the General Motors entry in the race to build a viable electric car — a race that includes the all-electric Nissan Leaf, a raft of Fords in various stages of development and an electric sedan that Tesla will soon begin selling — it may well be the most hyped American automobile since Lee Iacocca rolled out the Chrysler minivan. Begun four years ago, and championed by the legendary auto executive Bob Lutz, the Volt project managed to survive G.M.’s descent into bankruptcy, and emerge as the company’s great, shining hope, a symbol of what American car manufacturers could accomplish. Or so it’s been claimed.
Cars like the Leaf and the original Tesla — a Roadster that cost more than $100,000 — are “pure” electric vehicles powered solely by their batteries. Classic hybrids like the Toyota Prius use a battery as a kind of add-on, to boost the gas mileage of a combustion engine. The Volt, however, is engineered differently. As long as the battery has juice, the car acts like an electric vehicle. When the battery dies, the combustion engine takes over, and it becomes an old-fashioned gas-consuming car. Once you recharge the battery, electricity takes over again.
The experience of driving it meshes with the way we think about using a car. There is no need to plan ahead, for instance, to make sure the car won’t run out of battery life before we can recharge it. And the gas engine eliminates the dreaded “range anxiety” that prevents most people from embracing an electric vehicle. Indeed, G.M. likes to call the Volt an “extended range vehicle.” Motor Trend, the car enthusiasts’ bible, was so impressed that it named the Volt its 2011 car of the year.
The Volt went on sale last December. But because Chevrolet has been so cautious in rolling it out — dealers in only seven states have gotten cars so far, with fewer than 2,500 sold — it can sometimes seem like the world’s most publicized invisible car. (A bigger rollout is planned for next year.) Which is why I asked G.M. if I could test-drive it over the Memorial Day holiday. I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
For four days, I drove it around town, used it to pick up the groceries, took it to visit friends. Sometimes, when I walked out of a store, someone would be standing next to “my” Volt, wanting to ask me questions about it. Though I am no automotive expert, I was pleasantly surprised by the car’s power, pickup and handling. “People think it’s going to be a dorkmobile,” said Mr. Lutz, who retired last year. “But it’s fun to drive.”
Here’s what really got me, though: on the dashboard, alongside the gauge that measures the battery life, the Volt has another gauge that calculates the vehicle’s miles per gallon. During the two-hour drive to Southampton, I used two gallons of gas, a quarter of the tank. Thus, when I drove into the driveway, it read 50 miles per gallon.
The next day, after the overnight charge, I didn’t use any gas. After driving around 30 miles in the morning, I recharged it for a few hours while I puttered around the house. (It takes 10 hours to fully recharge, unless you buy a special 240-volt recharging unit.) That gave the battery 10 miles, more than enough to get me where I needed to go that evening on battery power alone. Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon — and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling. By the time I gave the car back to General Motors, I had driven 300 miles, without using another drop of gas beyond the original two gallons. I’m not what you’d call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself.
When I began to describe for Mr. Lutz the psychological effect the Volt had had on me, he chuckled. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score.”
PEOPLE who follow the car business like to say that this particular moment in automotive history is the closest we’ll ever come to seeing what the industry was like a century ago. Back then, there were dozens of auto companies, all experimenting with different ways to power a car, a race ultimately won by the gasoline-powered combustion engine. For good reason: nothing else provided more power, more efficiently.
Now the race is on to come up with an affordable, mass-market electric car. Everybody in the game has a different theory about how to go about it. Elon Musk, the PayPal co-founder who is the driving force behind Tesla, built his original Roadster by strapping together nearly 7,000 lithium ion cells — essentially laptop batteries — that consume the bulk of the car’s mass. (It’s a two-seater in part because there is no room for anything else but batteries.) Although his Roadster will never be a mass-market car — in fact, it’s being phased out in favor of Tesla’s new Model S Sedan — Mr. Musk has claimed victory because, he says, the car, with a range of well over 100 miles, offers “proof of concept” that an electric vehicle can be built to go long distances between charges. Starting at $57,400, the Model S is about half the price of the original sports car.
Carlos Ghosn, the flamboyant chief executive of Nissan, has made a different kind of bet, placing his chips — billions of them — on the $32,780 Leaf, which has a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack that can get 73 miles to the charge. Mr. Ghosn is said to believe that range anxiety is overblown, and that once people become accustomed to an electric car, 73 miles per charge won’t be an issue. Well, maybe in Europe and Japan, but most analysts I spoke to think he’s likely to get his head handed to him in America, and I tend to agree.
“We’ve had 120 years of gasoline dominance,” said Lindsay Brooke, a senior editor of Automotive Engineering International Magazine. “The habits and expectations that have been engendered — How far will the car go? How quickly can you get it refueled? — aren’t going to go away overnight.” Americans like the idea that they can get in their cars and drive halfway across the country — even if they never actually do it.
Besides, nobody yet knows what kind of infrastructure will develop around the electric car. Is lithium ion ultimately the right battery chemistry? How quickly will the cost of the battery — which is the most expensive feature in an electric car — come down? When will the battery size shrink, and its power increase?
ONE of the reasons there is so much experimentation right now is that no one knows how this is all going to play out. Until some answers begin to emerge, it is highly unlikely that any electric car will gain mass acceptance. Early adopters may be willing to give an electric car a chance, but the rest of us won’t. Most people want to drive proven technologies, not roll-of-the-dice bets.
Which is also why the Volt is such an appealing alternative — “the right answer for right now,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with the automotive Web site edmunds.com. It gives people a taste of the electric car experience without sacrificing any of the things we expect in a gas-powered car. In fact, the Volt’s engineering is a direct byproduct of G.M.’s dismal experience with its original electric car, the legendary EV1, which had more or less the same range as the Leaf. Between 1996 and 1999, G.M. leased 800 EV1’s, but faced with mounting costs, they were all repossessed at the end of production.
Chris Paine directed a scathing documentary about G.M.’s decision to kill the EV1, called “Who Killed The Electric Car?,” which blamed the failure on the automaker’s perfidy, but G.M. has always been convinced that the real culprit was range anxiety. “People just weren’t willing to make the compromises you had to make,” said Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer, “starting with the range.”
A woman, circa 1912, hand-cranks the charger for her electric Columbia Mark 68 Victoria. Credit Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation, via CORBIS
Mr. Farah, who worked on the EV1, recalled that G.M. used to attach rolling generators to the outside of the car so that the engineers could keep using it even after the battery died; that became the kernel of the idea behind the Volt. For his part, Mr. Lutz was the one who kept insisting that the battery had to be able to achieve 40 miles per charge, a figure he based on the many studies that showed that the vast majority of Americans drove 40 miles or fewer per day.
(The government officially puts the Volt’s battery range at 35 miles, but in the right conditions — warm weather, flat terrain — the range can go as high as 50 miles. During the time I drove the Volt, the battery range was consistently in the low 40s.)
That insistence gave rise to some inevitable compromises. The battery can’t be under the hood because a combustion engine is still there. So G.M. had to eliminate the middle seat in the back to make space for the big T-shaped battery the Volt required. Its small body, originally modeled on the Camaro, had to be made more aerodynamic because that was the only way to hit the 40 mile-per-charge mark.
And for a car intended for the mass market, it’s awfully expensive. The Volt retails for around $41,000; from what I hear, that’s pretty much what it costs to build. G.M.’s profits on this first iteration of the Volt, in other words, are essentially zero. Though there is currently a $7,500 tax credit on electric car purchases — the first tax incentive for hybrid gas-electric cars was introduced during the presidency of George W. Bush, in case you were wondering — it won’t last forever. Consumer Reports has advised readers to avoid the Volt because it costs too much. G.M. badly needs battery technology to keep improving, both so that it can lower the cost of its electric cars, and begin making Volt-like vehicles in other sizes and shapes, including wagons and S.U.V.’s that will attract families. That’s the only way it will finally reach the mass market.
Having said all that, driving it did convince me of two things. The first is that, Consumer Reports notwithstanding, the Volt has a better chance of success than anything else on the market. Yes, G.M.’s track record for making cars people want has not exactly been inspiring in recent years. But the company has been through hell and back, and a good number of the institutional impediments that prevented it from making good cars are now gone.
Though the Volt has its share of flaws, it is unquestionably a good car. More to the point, as I discovered when I drove it, the Volt makes sense for the economic and cultural moment we’re in now. The psychological grip it held me in, the smugness I felt as I drove past gas stations, the way it implicitly encouraged me to stick with battery power as much as I could — others are going to feel that as well. Somewhat to my surprise, I actually felt a pang of enviro-guilt when I gave the car back and returned to my gas-guzzling ways. Mr. Farah told me that Volt owners often drove 1,000 miles or more before they needed to buy gasoline. I believe it. It has extremely high word-of-mouth potential.
The second thing it convinced me of is that the electric car is no longer some environmental pipe dream. Several years ago, I drove the Tesla, and though it was a wonderful experience, its high price and limited utility did not give me confidence that electric cars were ready for prime time. The Volt has made a believer out of me. At this moment of maximum uncertainty about how the future will play out, the Volt is comforting in its combination of new technology and old. Eventually, we’ll have batteries that can get 300 miles per charge, and an infrastructure solution that will replace gas stations. Eventually.
In the meantime, we’ve got the Volt. It’s a start.
Correction: July 3, 2011
The cover article on June 26 about the future of the electric car described incorrectly the batteries for the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf. The Volt has a 16-kilowatt-hour battery, not a 16-kilowatt. The Leaf has a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack, not a 24- kilowatt. The article also referred incorrectly to the engine that won the race in automotive innovation a century ago. It was the gasoline-powered combustion engine, not a combustible engine.
Correction: July 3, 2011
An earlier version of the related chart misstated the electricity-only range of the Toyota Prius. It is one mile, not 13. (A plug-in version, which is to go on sale next year, will have a 13-mile electric-only range.) The chart also referred imprecisely to the charging time of the Nissan Leaf. It is 8 hours with a 240-volt charger, and 21 hours with a 120-volt charger. Finally, the chart omitted the eligibility of two of the models for a tax credit; like the Chevrolet Volt, the Tesla Roadster and the Nissan Leaf are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
SURSE: The New York Times