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March 30, 2009

For GM's Volt Too Much is Too Much
Much has been made of this quote from President Obama's auto restructuring team regarding GM's Chevy Volt:
In an attempt to leapfrog Toyota, GM has devoted significant resources to the Chevy Volt. While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable.
Now, it's true that betting the company on a non-existent market segment (i.e. plug-in hybrids) when even plain-vanilla hybrid sales represent only a fraction of the auto market seems questionable. And the restructuring that GM needs goes far beyond its failure to have a competitor to the Toyota Prius. But then again this was the company that previously centered its business and environmental strategy on the fantasy of the so-called "hydrogen economy" -- a transformation that was as far-off as it was unlikely. There's always been a haze of unreality hovering over GM's "green" initiatives (probably because global warming is a "crock of sh*t"). With the Volt, GM seems to have come asymptotically close to coming up with a winner. At best, GM appeared to recognize that it couldn't compete in today's car market, so why not make a car that might compete (eventually) in tomorrow's.

GM certainly couldn't have imagined it would sell too many $40,000 sedans -- which is how much the Volt will(?) would have(?) cost (while a Prius costs about $24,000). You'd think that affordability would've been an issue during the design phase. Given that the car carried its own recharger (in the form of a gasoline engine that kicked in when the battery charge was low), you have to wonder why they insisted on a battery with a 40 mile range -- way beyond what anyone else was attempting with plug-ins. Sadly, it appears that GM, seeking a game-changer, may have fatally over-reached. Because if there's a fatal flaw in the Volt (especially as GM's silver bullet), it's that darn battery. A Bloomberg article (via Joe Romm) that came out early this month sums it up:

General Motors Corp.'s Volt electric car may be too expensive to buy and operate to displace Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius hybrid as the industry benchmark for cutting fuel use and cutting carbon exhaust.

A rechargeable auto with the Volt's target range of 40 miles on electricity is "not cost effective in any scenario," a study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found. Plug-in cars with smaller batteries may be a better value, according to the study, which doesn't cite the Volt by name.

"Forty miles might be a sweet spot for making sure a lot of people get to work without using gasoline, but you're doing it at a cost that will never be repaid in fuel savings," Jeremy Michalek, an engineering professor who led the study, said in an interview.

The study is an attempt to test how prices and driving habits may shape consumer choices among current hybrids and new models such as the Volt and a Prius able to be recharged at a household outlet.

With lighter, cheaper batteries, a plug-in with 7 to 10 miles (11 to 16 kilometers) of electric range or a conventional hybrid may provide the best mix of price, faster charge times and efficiency, Michalek said.

In case you're wondering, the researchers based their numbers on $6 a gallon gas. Meanwhile, the battery alone is thought oto cst $16,000 -- you can get a decent small car for that. It's also the difference in cost between a Toyota Prius and (as estimated) the Volt itself. The Volt is a second generation plug-in hybrid when all GM needed was a first. It will be interesting to see if the new management tries to save the Volt by downsizing the battery -- assuming the company's still around to build it.

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