Stephen Rees's blog

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

Is the Volt a breakthrough?

with 8 comments

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

8 Responses

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  1. This would be perfect for the car co-ops I think. They could have recharge stations at the pick-up/drop-off points and pass on the savings to customers, thus providing further incentive for people to use the service.

    I think a larger, mini-van type version would also have potential for private services say between key transport interchanges (like Surrey Central) and suburban office parks. It could even help productivity because employees could relax in the morning and wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of morning commute traffic.

    But otherwise I agree with your points that it doesn’t address the issues of urban sprawl and lives destroyed due to collisions.

    Chris S

    February 8, 2010 at 12:51 pm

  2. It will be interesting to see how the Volt (and other plugins that follow) are marketed. If they play up the green-ness (as Toyota has done with the Prius), then it might not work out so well, since it will appeal to people who might otherwise seriously consider a mode shift as transit infrastructure improves in the future.

    On the other hand, if they emphasize convenience, cost savings, and the overall appeal of riding in these vehicles, then those most strongly committed to car culture may well switch to an electric vehicle from a gas guzzler. The resulting impact of this scenario would be far greater than just selling to green-minded types, which may perversely be a net negative.

    I guess since GM’s incentive is to keep as many people in their own vehicles, we should expect them to use this to keep environmentally-conscious people from abandoning cars altogether. Sigh…


    February 8, 2010 at 2:27 pm

  3. I agree with Darren that it’s the committed gas guzzlers in our society who need to be wooed with plug-in hybrids. Converting people like me who take transit to work and drive, on average, just 460km per month makes little sense.

    When the time comes to replace my gasoline car I’ll certainly look for a suitable plug-in hybrid. Hopefully there will be a wide range of vehicles available by then so I can get the form factor most suited to my needs at the time.


    February 8, 2010 at 3:22 pm

  4. Ha! I am a teenager all over again, thanks to the possibility of stretching a long, lawn mower extension chord to my neighbour’s house, and charging my “Volt’s” battery on his electricity bill.

    The Volt may not be the ultimate answer, however it presents two interesting cases.

    First, the possibility of having ecology-neutral energy sources. If we can produce limitless electrical energy cleanly, then what would we do with it? The likely answer is that we will have to deal with all of the same problems we have today, but—without the stigma of environmental degradation.

    Second, we may be seeing in this GM product a glimpse of the future for all capitalist corporations… Deliver the product the market wants, rather than giving us all the crap GM has put out over the last two decades. GM’s lack of “ear” for our ecological concerns, in my mind, landed it in the financial crisis it finds itself in. At least I hope so, because that will make “going forward” a heck of a lot easier.

    Lewis N. Villegas

    February 8, 2010 at 11:02 pm

  5. This car is not being produced because GM is concerned about the environment. Bob Lutz, the GM exec that championed the Volt is a climate change denier. They only started getting serious about bringing it to market when oil prices went through the roof. Realizing that the era of cheap oil is likely over, they looked over to coal and said, hey, there is a 400 hundred year supply of that left so lets build cars that can take advantage of that cheap fuel.

    As the Volt and similar cars will extend the overuse of the private automobile by 400 years using dirty coal, the result will be massive increases in GHG emissions.


    February 9, 2010 at 1:36 pm

  6. You guys should get a kick out the following: (it is about the electric version of the Citroen Saxo)
    I have heard quite a few times about electric utility cars and mini trucks used in Japan and Europe, have seen some on TV from France, and have seen a few myself, most manufactured by small manufacturers, but internet info in English is hard to get.
    In French: (click on the names in green)
    The French town of La Rochelle has had electric cars for rent for 7 or 8 years by now..

    Red frog

    February 9, 2010 at 9:52 pm

  7. Chris S.

    car co-ops should not be early adopters of new and expensive technology. Car coops serve their purpose first and foremost by allowing many people to not own a car (or families to own fewer cars). This encourages these people to choose their mode of transportation by the mode that best suite their needs, and not by the one they’ve already invested 1000’s of dollars in. Probably the biggest environmental gain is by not producing the cars in the first place, and we all gain by fewer cars on the road.

    If coops were to go with the flashy new technologies they would be much more expensive to use for the members, likely subject to large early adapter repair bills and would likely end up with fewer users due to the significantly higher costs of usage.


    February 9, 2010 at 10:51 pm

  8. The other problem with using electric cars for co-op cars is the long recharging times. This could mean that the co-op would have to buy more cars to serve the same number of members.


    February 10, 2010 at 12:34 am

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