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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for February 8th, 2010

Is the Volt a breakthrough?

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Chevrolet Volt

The car is a new, preproduction demonstrator of GM’s latest plug-in hybrid car. That circular cover just below the mirror is where it can be plugged in to a domestic power source and be re-charged. In addition to its batteries, it also has a small conventional gasoline engine, which kicks in automatically after 64 kilometres. That is the designed range in order to prolong battery life, but is also more than most people drive on a daily basis. For many commuters, they will not need to use the gas for most of their trips. This car – or rather one developed from feedback for those who try this version – will be on sale next year in Canada. No word yet about the price, but GM are confident they will not have any trouble selling all they intend to build. UPDATE “GM ended months of speculation on [July 27, 2010] by revealing a price tag for the Volt of $41,000 (U.S.).”
Globe and Mail

I got to drive the car last weekend, by invitation of GM, but not on the streets – because they are not yet licensed here – but around the parking lot of the H R McMillan Science Centre. It is a very desirable vehicle, though they said that it is not ready yet for sale. It is nice driving an almost silent car. Inside you only hear a light hum when moving – outside mostly noise from tyres – specially designed for low rolling resistance.  A “chirrup” can be sounded if pedestrians or cyclists seem unaware of its presence. It has, like all EVs, excellent acceleration from rest – in fact there are two settings to moderate that for everyday traffic and save energy. It handles nicely.

GM think that it will revolutionize the car business. And, from their perspective, they had better be right, as GM had, of course, to be bailed out and its business plan rethought. Toyota currently lead the hybrid business, but GM has a lot of its big SUV hybrids in town right now, shuttling Olympic “family” and other favoured guests around town in exclusive lanes. GM is a major Olympic sponsor. This is an important showcase for them. Toyota is, of course, also in trouble at present due to build quality – a real blow to its reputation. And Toyota does yet have a plug in version of the Prius for sale here. The Volt can be used as an electric vehicle. The engine only has to be turned on for longer trips or for when the nearest electrical outlet is out of range. In many cities in Canada, outlets in parking lots and garages are common for block heaters. Not Vancouver, of course, but the City has mandated charging points in new construction.

A plug-in hybrid is a technological innovation – and is a lot more complex than that simple phrase suggests. I heard a lot about how smart this car is and how innovative its batteries (LiON) and systems are. Oddly, I was given no printed hand out, and I wasn’t taking notes. But cars are going to be part of our transportation future here, and in the rest of the world, for many years. So efforts to reduce their impact are essential. Since we have plenty of hydro resources – or would do if the lure of power exports to California were not so profitable – cutting the use of gasoline for car use will help. Or would if driving patterns stayed the same. Since we have been and still are expanding our road networks, car use will grow. I actually doubt that, at present, gasoline use deters much driving, but of course once you own a plug in car that uses carbon free power those concerns would fade away – even when gas gets very expensive indeed. So the Volt means that more people will keep on driving – just as the Prius has.

Emissions from cars – both common air contaminants locally and greenhouse gases globally – are problems.  But they are not the only problem with car use.   Traffic congestion, urban sprawl, human health – obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes as well as the results of collisions – are problems of significance too. Electric, zero emission cars do nothing to tackle any of these issues and arguably help us put off the day when we start to deal with them effectively. There is also the bounce back effect seen with every improvement in energy efficiency. As each appliance gets more efficient our power consumption does not fall as much as predicted as we just use them more.

On the side of the demonstration GM also had a couple of hydrogen fuell cell SUVs – and I was able to drive one of those across the Burrard Bridge and around the West End. Again, a nice quiet, comfortable ride, and plenty of hydrogen in the tank. But again limited range, and a lack of currently available refuelling stations means that hydrogen cars and trucks – which are also very expensive to build – are not going to be seen in large numbers here – or anywhere else – for while. Hydrogen is going to follow the same difficult path that other “alt fuels” have experienced. Not enough cars, not enough filling stations and no way to short cut the economics that deter owners from facing that conundrum.

I have no problem with GM following its corporate strategy – though I think, like all corporations, it needs a much tighter regulatory framework and careful monitoring to protect the greater good. But it is also tied closely to government spending and thus policy decisions. I have no doubt GM officials are more comfortable now dealing with BC politicians than they were people like Moe Sihota.  (Though he notably rejected a Natural Gas minivan as his official car. It was the previous year’s model.)  Our politicians seem only too ready to support corporate objectives. That was not why they were elected. The reason we have government at all is that corporations – and individuals too – need to set aside their own interests sometimes. We have seen only too clearly in recent years what happens when regulation is lightened. Profits, yes for while they seem to grow, but the social and environmental costs are now unbearable.

Governments ought to be curbing highway expansions, since we know that most of the supposed benefits are illusory. We must reduce greenhouse gas production drastically and quickly and that means significant wrenching social change. Hydrogen SUVs and plug in hybrids are not solutions to our greatest problems and difficulties but emollients that allow some to continue as they always have done. North American consumption patterns are currently shrinking – the stimulus funds have been going to the wrong people. This actually may not be a Bad Thing – if it can be managed properly, and policies like expanding transit and passenger rail were extended at the expense of highway funding.

Will I buy a Volt? Probably not. For one thing, I would have to persuade the strata council to install metered outlets at the parking stalls. That is actually a bigger hurdle than the probable price tag, since lower gas bills could probably finance some of the purchase and I expect that gas will not stay around $1.10 a litre for very long.

More pictures can be found on flickr

Plugged in

Written by Stephen Rees

February 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm