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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Volt is Coming! The Volt is Coming! (Maybe)

General Motors continues to emit a steady stream of—mostly the same—information on the forthcoming (late 2010, they’re still saying) Chevy Volt: four door, plug-in, *“up to”* forty miles on a full charge, pure electric drive train, the onboard gasoline/E85 engine is just a generator to recharge the batteries.

So why am I not happy and excited?

I suppose, first and foremost, I’ll believe it when I see it.

In the software world, you refer to a much promised, oft delayed, product as Vaporware. It’s off there in the mist somewhere, glistening, perfect, and not quite touchable. It seems to be moving toward you, but it’s hard to tell in all that fog.

And GM has fogged us over before.

Paging the EV1! Paging the EV1!

Having a prototype up and running concretizes things a little, but not much: there’s a world of difference between building a $1 million one-off that will run smoothly for a one hour press junket versus building a $20,000 mass market car that a million consumers will still swear by (rather than at) a year after it’s been put into full service.

And in this case, well. . . Show me the battery.

All the hybrids extant run on nickel metal hydride batteries. The Volt is supposed to run on lithium ion packs. Twice the energy in half the weight, and every now and then your laptop bursts into flame—that’s where you’ve heard of lithium ion batteries before. That’s also why a lithium ion pack large and powerful enough to run a car is a little nervous-making. (Not saying this is not a good technology, not saying it won’t eventually be made to work, just saying I don’t know that I want to be the first on my block to test this out and roast the carpool kids, my own included.)

We keep hearing about battery breakthroughs. Again, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile, over at the bank. . . GM is at the front of the line, as the American automobile industry asks Uncle Sugar for $25 billion or so to help break (or is it cushion, or is it continue, I get confused) its addiction to trucks and SUVs.

We need to produce vehicles that get higher mileage! Well who coulda predicted that would ever happen? I mean we’re not clairvoyant here in Detroit, y’know!

In the fine print of the Volt hype, GM has been saying, rather more sotto voce: we’re not really going to make many of these.

Here’s the short answer to bailing out Detroit: no.

The number of auto manufacturing jobs has actually remained relatively stable in the US for several decades. They’ve just shifted from “American” companies (like Ford of Mexico and Korea), to “Japanese” companies (like Honda of Marysville, Ohio).

The Japanese build better cars.

They also pay more, pay more for, (and pay more attention to) engineers instead of the obscenely inflated salaries that American execs pay themselves.

If the Volt eventually appears, is a well made product that works as advertised, I’ll buy one and congrats to GM.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

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