Test Driving the Future of General Motors: My Experience Behind the Wheel of the Chevy Volt

10/13/10

Ten years ago the electric car seemed to be the wave of the future. But in those days of peace and cheap gas, consumers weren’t really demanding the technology. Today that problem has been turned on its ear, as clean energy vehicles are popping up on the factory floor of most major car companies, each vying to tap into an emerging wave of demand for clean, green automobiles.

With the resurgence of the electric car, many are wondering, could it save our floundering American car companies? The industry has gone through a wrenching transformation in this economic downturn, seeing a free fall in demand from the traditional U.S. consumer. Automakers sold about 17 million cars a year in the U.S. during the peak years of 1999 to 2007, but now demand for new cars shrank to just 10 million in 2009.

Many people consider the 2011 Chevy Volt, an electric vehicle, to be the next great hope for the future of Detroit-based General Motors. On Saturday, I was one of the lucky few to get a chance to actually drive one, I hopped behind the wheel at Griot’s Garage in Tacoma. Griot’s was the first stop on the Volt’s “Volt Unplugged” tour, a 3,400-mile, 12-city cross-country caravan orchestrated by GM to showcase the electric car’s extended range capabilities.

When I got to the auto shop’s garage, there were two Volts—one painted in steel grey, the other in black—waiting to be driven out on the road. Four others were already out, being taken for a spin by other members of the local media.

What makes the Volt unique, is that at first glance—with both an electric engine and gas-powered generator—it sounds like a hybrid. But it’s not. The Volt is in fact equipped with both electric and gas power sources, but does not run the same way that a hybrid might. The car’s 16kWh battery powers the vehicle for 25 to 50 miles, after which the “extended range” capabilities take over, and the gas-powered generator is used to recharge the electric battery. The more efficiently you drive, the more energy is recycled back into powering the car.

Chevy Volt two shot

“It’s more like an electric locomotive,” says General Motors communications representative Alan Alder. “Even the brake harnesses the kinetic energy of braking to regenerate the battery.”

The first 25 to 50 miles (a variable that depends on terrain, temperature, battery age, and driving technique) are powered without using any gas, and has no emissions. Consumers who use the Volt to drive 50 miles a day or less, according to Chevy, would save approximately 500 gallons of gas a year.

“For the average commuter that drives 40 miles a day,” says Alder. “They will never use a drop of gas.”

It takes between eight and 10 hours to fully charge a depleted battery using a basic 120-volt outlet, and around between three and five hours on a 240-volt charger. (If you live in Washington state and your electricity is run by hydropower, even charging up the car is emission-free). With a full charge and a full tank of gas the Volt can run for approximately 350 miles straight, and has a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour.

When I got behind the wheel of the black Volt with Alder and my “photographer” for the day, Sam Speer, my boyfriend (credit Sam for the pictures) to take it for a spin, the first thing I noticed was the noise—or lack of it. The silence was so unnerving, I checked to make sure the Volt was in fact turned on several times before easing out of the garage (there were cameras filming after all, and I’d vowed to myself when I agreed to the test-drive that I would not make the blooper roll). I immediately pressed the inconspicuous “power” button on and then off again to see if I could hear any sound at all. But rather than a rumbling engine, or a gurgling turnover, all I heard was a faint, short charge up sound that reminded me of the phasers in Star Trek, and the racing motorcycles from Tron. If this is the sound of the next generation of automobiles, then we can credit science fiction sound engineers for tuning our ears to that note long ago!

As we drove out of the lot and onto the Tacoma city streets, the next thing I noticed was the ease of driving the Volt—it felt like any other car might, except without all the ruckus. Having a 1996 Honda Accord myself, the Volt was a quiet escape. The Volt also seemed to move more easily than my clunky car. It has only 360 pounds of batteries, as opposed to the 1,200 pounds that were in the original EV-1s from a decade ago.

The most appealing aspect of the Volt, however, was that the 20 minutes behind the wheel taught me to be a more efficient driver—of any car. In the Volt, in order to maximize efficiency, the dash display has a sizeable meter dedicated to measuring the efficiency of two of the most wasteful maneuvers—accelerating and breaking—as you drive. As I prepared to stop at lights, and turn corners, a small ball bounced out of the efficiency sweet spot in the center, and up and down the meter. Apparently my own driving habits, unbeknownst to me, weren’t particularly green. But the meter coerced me into slowing down and letting the car do its job, and I took my new green driving awareness home with me.

The Chevy Volt is not as flashy as some of the other electric vehicles on the market, namely the Tesla sports car. It is designed for the average consumer. The five-door, four-seat Volt starts at $33,500. And although General Motors is only producing 10,000 of the vehicles in the first year, Volt engineer Tim Perzanowski says the electric vehicle will be an increasingly important part of the company’s strategy moving forward.

“It’s very key to General Motors’ future,” he says, adding that the company plans to produce as many as many as 40,000 Volts in the car’s second year on the market.

While Perzanowski says the technology is available to build an entirely electric car with no gas-powered generator today, that’s not a practical project for Chevy. The result would simply be too expensive for the average consumer, and those are the customers the company needs to target. It will take time, he says, to build the electric car into the U.S. infrastructure, with enough charging stations. But with further innovations in battery technology and energy storage down the line, will come further innovations in affordable green transportation for the average person.

“We feel that the Volt covers the broadest range of consumers that are out there right now,” he says. “In the next 20 years we’re going to have people who were kids or in high school when these cars came out, so they will be the standard. For now, we have to think ahead to that.”

It’s the age-old dilemma of the chicken and the egg, according to Alder. “What comes first, technology or infrastructure?” he says.

Check out pictures of my drive in the Volt in the gallery below.


Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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  • Jerry Jeff

    Interesting hedge on the technology. I hope it’s a success. We’ll see if buyers can stomach the high price for a compact car and what the performance and operation costs look like in the real world.

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  • P Evans

    Typo or Freudian slip: “breaking”. Hopefully the former, as this car is extremely important to Chevy, er, I mean Chevrolet. I cannot understand why the rear seats are essentially buckets (making it a four passenger car). The Volt is somewhat midway in price between a Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S–it will be very interesting to see how it sells. (But at least they made the body palatable; the first versions looked like you’d need to wear a Batsuit to drive them.)
    I agree with Thea about smiling due to the lack of sound. The most recent time I grinned while driving was when I first tried a Prius, and immediately loved the silence. I look forward to a world with much less air and sound pollution!

  • Jerry Jeff

    I read somewhere that the rear seat configuration is due to the battery pack which apparently runs all the way down the middle of the car in that big bar. Not good for anyone with a baby seat, but probably something that will be fixed in the 2012 or 2013 model.

  • Ted

    You guys are a tech blog.

    So figure out how to make a click through photo gallery…

    Nice “brake” from the usual tech chatter!

    -t

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