To understand the furor that erupted recently when General Motors rolled out its new electric car, the Chevy Volt, for its public debut, it pays to keep the following fact in mind: For electric car enthusiasts, GM is a company with blood on its hands.
The crime was the murder of the EV1, the pioneering all-electric car GM produced from 1996 to 1999 and supported indifferently until it shut down the program for good in 2005.
The killing of the electric car, to paraphrase the title of a fine 2006 documentary about the EV1, is widely seen as a major blunder by the company, and one that led to the U.S. auto industry getting its lunch eaten in the high-mpg market by competitors like Toyota. Instead, GM moved whole-hog into building Hummers, and if you know the definition of "bankruptcy," you know how that turned out.
Given this rap sheet, it's unsurprising that when GM disclosed the technological innards of the Volt last week, EV enthusiasts and the auto press were on the lookout for holes in its story. What they seized on was the revelation that in certain circumstances, the Volt's gasoline engine will have more to do with powering the wheels than GM had previously let on.
This generated incendiary articles on automobile blogs accusing GM of having "lied" about the Volt by making it seem greener and more technologically advanced than it is. "Chevy Volt is not a true EV," wrote Edmunds.com's Insideline blogger, who seemed to take it personally. "Don't believe everything GM says. No matter how many times they say it," he added.
That's not merely a commentary on GM — it's a reminder of the absolutely awful record of this country, its auto industry and its political leaders in delivering on their rhetoric about the need to wean ourselves from foreign oil. By killing the EV1, GM set this all-important goal back by at least a decade.
The new controversy was surely an undesired distraction for what GM hoped would be an unalloyed love-fest for the Chevy Volt from the automotive press. Indeed, the car has received almost universal kudos from test drivers. Having tried it out, I can tell you the demo model, at least, is an impressive, zippy and fun ride. It goes on sale later this year.
As it happens, GM had never concealed that the Volt would have a gasoline engine, as well as an electric motor, on board. The dispute is over what role it said the gas engine would play. Without getting too deep into the gears and drive shafts of the matter, GM stands accused of letting people think that the gasoline engine would merely recharge the depleted battery on the road, providing an "extended range" of about 310 miles beyond the battery-powered motor's 40 to 50 miles. Fully charging the battery from a power outlet takes between four and 10 hours, depending on the current.
As GM opened up the car to the automotive press two weeks ago, it revealed that the gas engine will directly power the car's generator, which in some cases will directly power the wheels. Many in the automotive press felt they'd been had.
It's fair to say that GM misrepresented the Volt's technology and may have inflated its capabilities. Its publicity material labeled the Volt "a complete, no-compromises electric package," called it "all-electrically driven" and stated adamantly, "The Chevrolet Volt is not a hybrid." That certainly makes it sound as though the gas engine isn't involved at all in turning the wheels.
The company also claimed the car would warrant an EPA rating of 230 miles per gallon — former CEO Fritz Henderson was photographed with the Volt a year ago under a banner reading "230," with the zero drawn to resemble an electric socket with a smile.
As some of the ticked-off auto writers maintain, the technical configuration does look rather like a hybrid and isn't really "all-electrically driven." GM's response has two elements. First, it explains that if you take out the electric engine, the car won't move (ergo, "all-electric").
Second, it acknowledges that it didn't release all the technical details of its engineering but withheld them "for competitive reasons," as a GM spokesman told me. He said the company waited until its patent was "allowed" by the U.S. patent office, a late step in the patent process.
As for Henderson's mileage claim, that may have something to do with the lack of a standard formula for assigning an EPA rating to a vehicle that works as the Volt does. If you drive 50 miles or less between rechargings, you'll use so little gasoline that the car has been engineered to keep the fuel in its tank from going stale. GM estimates the average cost of electricity for a full recharge at about $1.60, or about the price of a half-gallon of regular today.
If the dispute over GM's honesty puts you in mind of a debate over Holy Writ by scholastic monks in the Middle Ages, you're not far off.