Wherein GM calls my bluff…

I first learned of the Chevrolet Volt while standing on a Minneapolis street corner on June 23, 2006. I’d had engineering friends at GM who’d been hinting for a few months before that they were working on something even I “would approve of”- but I was dubious enough that when a journalist called on the last day of our Who Killed the Electric Car? press tour to get my thoughts about the company working on an electric car again, my response probably involved suggesting she lay off the crack.

GM did obviously announce the Volt, and in the time since, I’ve met with various people on the Volt team, driven different iterations of the car, written about it, heard them out and called them out, and have relentlessly encouraged them to learn from our collective past experience – just as I’ve done with most other automakers. But given my specific history with this particular company, I didn’t expect to be standing among fourteen other people this week as GM’s North American President, Mark Reuss, called my bluff with a simple, “we want you guys to help us build a better car.”

Whether we help anyone build a better anything remains to be seen. But the Volt Customer Advisory Board will serve as the first “civilians” (non-employees) to be living with the car, using it in our daily lives, and giving feedback–good, bad, and ugly, if needed–to the GM team. While some are better known than others, the group is basically made up of three types of people: current or former EV drivers (EV1, RAV4, Mini E), industry veterans, and newer enthusiasts. The goal is to collect real-world data and opinions from both virgin users and those who’ve been living and working with them for years, and to use that information to refine the vehicle and/or the program.

What’s involved: free use of a Volt and installed 240v charger for three months. Weekly collection of driving and charging data via OnStar (more frequent feedback as we see fit), monthly conference calls with the Volt team, and potentially, deeper conversations to dig into observations that warrant it.

What’s not involved: none of us are receiving financial compensation for our participation. There are no gag orders, no NDAs, no exclusivity expectations for those of us who work in the industry, and no restrictions of any kind on what we say about our impressions of the vehicle or participation on the CAB. Some in the group are unabashed and prolific fans and a few of us are more guarded, but most are planning on posting our experiences in one form or another. Likewise, there is no requirement that we promote the Volt, Chevrolet, or General Motors, or speak publicly at all– though they certainly encourage it, and undoubtedly chose the people they did in the hopes that we would.

I’ve seen some lovely, supportive reactions to this project that reflect how community-oriented EV technology really is, and some that still question how we can “trust” GM again- or think I’ve sold out just to get a car for few months. For sure, I’m looking forward to driving a plug-in every day for a while, and even more to having a real, current generation vehicle to use in my local presentations and events after years of nothing but PowerPoint slides. And oh yes, there shall be test drives- I miss tossing the keys to someone and saying, “here, come see for yourself”, the way I did countless times with EV1 (ok, no keys involved there). And I do hope eventually to buy an EV of my own- though I’ve not yet decided which model that will be. But I’m also fortunate enough to get to test drive various EVs on a fairly regular basis, including many that are coming in the next several years- so I get my periodic “fix” in that regard. No, while I’m definitely excited about the driving, if that were my only motivation, I’d have gone off and gotten a “regular” job years ago and simply bought one when it came available. I have been doing this work for as long as I have because I want to see millions of EVs on the road, not just one in my driveway.

And I’m not in this because I trust GM- or any other automaker- but because I don’t. More specifically, I don’t think trust is the appropriate sentiment here; we apply it to people, not companies. Regardless, merely trusting won’t get the job done. It’s true that I have basically made peace with GM as it relates to the past (though watching Andrew Farah tell former EV1 drivers- incorrectly-  what they didn’t like about that car yet one more time this week was its own special breed of broken-record torture. Enough already.) The reality is that aside from a few engineers I was happy to see resurface on the Volt program, the EV1 staff is long gone and so is that period in GM’s history. They’ll still have to answer for it, and they still have to win people back on their way to the mainstream market–but that can only happen by building new cars, not talking about old wounds.

GM is betting the Volt is the first of those new cars- if they’re right, it’ll be one of the best redemption stories ever. It’s an undeniably good car- fun to drive, with specs that will appeal to plenty of buyers. The Volt team is intensely earnest, and I’ve seen several of the executives go giddy over it. But those things will not be enough; the last generation of EV’s didn’t suffer for lack of good cars or sincerity. I have been where GM and the other manufacturers are going, and I know many of the challenges they’re going to face–and frankly, I’m just not patient enough to wait on the sidelines while all of these companies figure it out on their own. There’s no guarantee the Volt- or the Leaf, or any of these early programs will succeed, and it would be easier to be cynical and write off the companies who’ve disappointed us than to dig in and help. But cynicism isn’t going to build the cars we want, and I want a lot of cars. I’m not naively optimistic, I’m just that stubborn.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

PS- One of the neat things about the mix of drivers involved is that others write up stuff I wouldn’t think to about this experience. Please do check out fellow CAB member (and former EV1 and current RAV4 EV driver) Colin Summers’ blog. It’s already interesting, and we don’t even have cars yet!

48 thoughts on “Wherein GM calls my bluff…

  1. Chelsea,

    This is awesome! Every once in a I catch a glimpse of some minor irrelevant news story that mentions the Volt, yet it’s just felt like the same old-same old. Corporate induced excitement or promises, pie in the sky marketing spin. I’m really looking forward to your insights and your overall take on it.

  2. The Chevy Volt includes a lot of new technology and that makes me more than a little nervous about the reliability of the vehicle. So I will be interested to hear from early users about their experience.

  3. I am looking forward to your evaluation and comments Chelsea. I only wish they gave this group the cars about six months ago when they could have really used your input and suggestions. I’m not sure what impact you can have now other than last minute software tweaks. By the time your three months are up with the cars, customers will have already begun taking delivery.
    See you at Green Drive Expo on 10/9!

    1. @Tom: Some of us “real people” did provide input that went to the Volt Team at GM… and one of us is also one of the new Volt Drivers, too =)

      1. @Stephanie – not sure how you’re defining “real people” (or which one of the CAB you’re thinking of), but most of the Board is made up of us! If you’re thinking of other fuel cell drivers, there are a few of those too.

  4. Chelsea,

    I’m happy for you. You’ve put in a lot of time and effort into EV advocacy. Getting a Volt for 3 months is well deserved. The fact there is no gag order or NDAs pleases me more.

    One thing about the Volt, that many people are interested in, is the fuel economy when running in the range extended mode. If you get a chance, please test this out. Of course you would have to do the testing under different scenarios to be fair. Say steady state low speed, steady state highway speed and your own regular style. Whether it is good or bad won’t make a difference to me.

    My next car purchase will be a pure electric one. The kids are grown, so no more dance classes, sports practices or tournaments. Most of my travels are well within the range of the Leaf or the iMiEV. Actually the Volts electric only range would probably suffice, but the price premium is too much for me.

    Have fun with the Volt when you get it and I to look forward to your take on this new toy.

  5. Thanks guys- definitely plan on posting real world range, mpg, etc. Will only be individual data points, but all pieces of the bigger picture.

    I wish this had been done a while ago too, and we’ll obviously have little impact on the launch version of the car, but unfortunately this is the soonest vehicles were allowed to be placed with non-employees. Particularly with the recent scrutiny over Toyota, NHTSA is pretty sensitive to prototypes leaving company hands.

    John, infant technical problems are to be expected (or, at least, I do) in all of these early programs. EV1 had them too. I hope they’re not endemic, but am more concerned with how they’re handled. The earliest adopters don’t mind that stuff within reason, but want to be dealt with in a straightforward manner and have any issues fixed quickly and/or cooperatively. Not a lot of patience for anything else in that group.

  6. Phenomenal writing as usual, Chelsea. I get such a kick out of reading you. When the book is written on this subject, I want to see your name on the cover.

  7. Hi Chelsea. I’m really a purist zero emission gal at heart, but I must admit that when I test drove the Volt at the AltCar Expo on Saturday I LOVED it! Really a smooth ride & solid feel with a nice touch of classy luxury IMO. Wish I could get on that Consumer Advisory Board :-). While there someone from Coda took a photo of my “crushed GM? Buy ELECTRIC” decal on my Saturn, so look for it on their company Facebook page. Nice reflection of clouds blowing by a blue sky above the message. Right now I’m for anything that gets us cleaner air! Best, Trudee

  8. As someone above pointed out, there will be real customer cars on the road before the end of this 3 month feedback period, so to me it does seem like nothing more than a marketing excercise to ramp up excitement in the blogosphere before launch.

  9. Having worked in the consumer electronics industry, I see this as a normal and valuable part of a launch. This type of feedback is excellent for finding early problems. Software can still be adjusted, and mechanical parts can even be changed in this time period. If worse comes to worse, shipments can be delayed to make time to fix serious problems pointed out by these early customers.
    Consider the alternative. Start shipping 10,000 vehicles and find that they all contain a serious problem that could have been easily fixed if noticed one month earlier.
    People seem to be a little to skeptical about this exercise.

  10. The car was simply not ready before now.. what would have been the point in doing this earlier?.

    Expect a couple of major software revisions before the 2012 model is out.. just look at the Equinox as an example.

  11. Dearest Chels:
    I’m just glad you’ll be burning SOME gas. Any at all is certainly better than nothing, right? I’m assuming the last time you referred to me as “dense”, you were talking about energy density, right? Let’s get together and create some thermal runaway sometime soon…
    Ciao,
    Gasoline

    1. Aww, Gasoline… don’t fret, as long as there are petrolheads in the world, there will be a place for you. And I’m all for getting heated, but I’m not sure your pump could keep up with me- fuel pump, of course. After all, I’m known for wanting to go fast. Could bust your head gasket, and that gets awfully messy…

      Yeah, probably best you keep your combustion contained, and leave the thrust that really turns me on to that other guy- you’ve met AC, haven’t you?

      kthxbye,

      chels.

    2. Seriously Gasoline – intelligent people know better than to stay in a permanent codependent relationship with someone as toxic as you are. Besides. Chelsea’s a class act who knows I’m the future. Your days are numbered.

  12. What about me? I’m the fuel of the future and I always will be. How awesome would it be to drive down the street and hear people say, “Oh, the humanity!”

    1. Sure, but will you have any…staying power? Starting out hot and moist is great, but not if you eventually become cold and clammy. Ewww…

  13. I’m going to make sure my web-filter is set up to prohibit my children (e.g. H2O, etc.) from accessing this filthy website. Only Chelsea Sexton could make electricity “pornish.” I expel gas in your general direction.

  14. Does this mean I will no longer experience Chelsea’s rhythmic thrusting motion, at least for three month? Volt, I am so jealous.

  15. LOL! What a funny, witty exchange- most enjoyable. But you left me nothing left to pose as:-( Though, I could post as LNG, but carbon-based fuel, by any other name, would smell just as sweet…

    I am happy for you 3month preview, Chelsea- don’t be discouraged by the naysayers- though you don’t seem all that thin-skinned to begin with, so perhaps such an exhortation is unneeded.

  16. Come on, Paul C. There’s many other sources of motive energy. Take me, for instance. I’ll run and run on my little endless belt, turning this pulley, which is connected to that shaft (don’t go for the easy win, Sexton), which either charges a battery or is connected to a direct drive. I only require some tasty pellets…and I only leave some non-tasty pellets behind. I may not be sexy, but I’m as cute as a fat little button.

  17. I’ll be following your coverage of the Volt, even though I’m going to be one of the early Leaf adopters. The engineer in me is interested in seeing how maintenance plays out on the Volt given that you now have to deal with 2 power systems and yet more moving parts. I’ll admit GM one-upped Nissan by providing their On-Star service free for 5 years (Nissan is only doing 3 years with CarWings), but it will be interesting to see how the car holds together if you slog it good in your 3 month time-frame. Of course the same I guess could be said for how well the Leaf’s interior (seats) will hold up.

    As for me I mainly ride my motorcycle (yes, I’m a bad polluter) but I do get over 50 mpg out of my Harley (over 210k miles on it so far). The Leaf will be the third car I have ever purchased (had a Gremlin (ack!) for 22yrs, and now my Dodge of 18yrs will be replaced by the Leaf).

    1. Thanks, Curt! And since I’ve not yet decided what I’m going to actually lease/buy, I’m just as curious about the early experience of the Leaf folks (and fellow Volt drivers). I’ve enough experience on these programs to know that we’ll see some infant technical issues (happens on all sorts of new products, of course) but am more concerned with how each company handles them and the overall experience for the drivers.

      No worries on the Harley- it gets higher mileage than the supercharged Saturn I’m currently driving! And congratulations on such longtime ownership- and for getting 22 years out of a Gremlin!

    1. yup- Ion Redline. Underestimated little car, so not many were made- and it doesn’t look like much, but does 0-60 in ~5.5 secs. :O)

  18. Chelsea thanks for all you’ve done to promote awareness of EVs. If you’d like to see an Open Source effort that I have been working on for five years please check out paxterra.weebly.com.

    Nothing could move us into the EV future faster than an Open Source model.
    Paxterra is my take on, “What if Che Guevara started a car company?”

    Keep up the good work. We will prevail!

  19. Does the news that the Volt isn’t really an EV-ER but a Plug in hybrid dampen it’s credibility in the film at all?

    If the gas engine directly powers the wheels at times (as it is now revealed that it does) – then it isn’t an EV-ER or ER-EV or whatever they call it.

    1. Just one man’s opinion here, but I don’t think this new revelation means very much. I think this is all about the PERCENTAGE of time that you can operate the Volt on electricity.
      It still sounds like the Volt can use very little gasoline (like one tank a year). If that is still the case (as I think it is) then it is fine.
      On the other hand, the plug-in Prius really doesn’t have any EV-only mode and if it did, the range would be only 14 miles. So this seems very limiting. On the other hand, I will wait to see the price for the Plug-in Prius before I make up my mind. The Volt is still really expensive.

      1. Prius ‘Classic’ Battery Only Range:
        As a lark I drove a brand new rental 2008 Prius (600 miles on the odometer) completely out of gas to see its battery only range… After the last severe warning that the car was now finally and truly completely out, no more warnings, of gas it drove at reduced power on mostly level ground no AC, no lights, heater etc. for about one (1) mile… At which point in a somewhat chagrinned (at my range nievete) manner I pushed the Prius off the road and hitched a ride to the next gas station. One mile.
        As an aside, IMO, range extension is a must for any EV to gain significant market share. I am really surprised that of all the many new EVs popping up only the Volt has one. I’d like to see manufacturers offer gasoline range extension modules as an option… Sort of like chrome wheels or leather interior 😉 once they get hit at the show room with customer range anxiety I anticipate we will see a lot more range extended EVs in a few years. ROB

  20. THE VOLT has to VAULT the range barrier before it can go wide in sales to the public. To accomplish that it needs a so-called “range extender” sufficiently small, light and very much more fuel efficient than its run-of-the- mill gasoline engine slowly turning a heavy, cumbersome generator. It needs a space-age closed Brayton cycle generator with a high, flat efficiency curve generating power with so much less fuel that it gives it a 300 mile range with almost no dependence on plug-in power, while burning compressed natural gas at an equivalent gasoline rate of 100mpg, with minimal carbon emission as compared with grid power.

  21. There is a sure way of solving the main problems of the Volt (and really all EVs announced so far) — namely range and battery recharging. The solution is a natural gas-fired closed Brayton cycle generator giving the Volt a 300 mile range while needing far fewer batteries than the 16kW-hrs now provided or range freedom without recharging stations, still retaining the 30-40 city mile electric range. This type of generator weighs a fraction of the weight of the Volt’s gasoline “range extender,” uses less space and can reduce the cost of the Volt significantly. The technology of manufacturing this space-age generator for automotive use is well established, very much like turbo chargers, oil coolers, inter coolers and the like. It works more like a dental drill than a lumbering diesel engine and requires almost no maintenance, doesn’t use lubricants and runs silently.

  22. I test drove the Volt on Monday this week and was impressed with the quiet spacious feel of the car. However, I do recall that a GM exec jokingly mentioned that they too could build an all electric version of the Volt (like the Leaf and or FocusEV). And while I understand the whole range anxiety motivation here, I will not consider a GM product until it is ALL electric.

  23. Chelsea,
    I appreciate your efforts and I promise not to live in the past but at the rate things are going – all these years after the EV1, GM are only producing a range extender!!!…
    IF YOU HAVE TO GO TO THE GAS STATION IT´S NOT AN ELECTRIC CAR !!
    It´s a hybrid – great for extra mileage in the arena of gas but it still employs an ICE which is dreadfully inefficient – burning about 85% of your gas in the tank and wasting it as heat! We have already done this for 100 years.
    GM are dragging their feet and playing PR. For them to say that this is progress is lame. If they wanted to, they could do way better than this. If these companies cared anything about gas consumption they would have been producing hybrids back in 1980 or before. Long before Li batteries. And it would have been a great idea… then.
    If you are thinking of buying a pure electric that´s great. Otherwise save your money, for between $30 -40k you can convert a nice car that will give you in the order of 100 miles per charge… in the spirit of Jack Rickard – the best conversion page on the net
    Webpage
    evtv.me

    Steve

    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks, and I understand your perspective. But given that an EV won’t work for everyone, I like that something like the Volt will be available- and it’s a lot closer to an EV than something like the Prius PHV. More to the point, I know it’s not the only plug-in GM has in the works, and I want them to have a good experience with the Volt so the others will come.

      As for Jack…he had some choice words about me in his last episode, none of which was based in fact. Hard to think of someone who would refer to a total stranger as a whore and spread misinformation about the technology as the best resource on anything. But I agree, there are some good conversion resources out there!

      1. Well, Chelsea, I am saddened by the name calling. I really appreciate your voice out there in the EV discussion. I find you have a level of enthusiasm and balance that is often missing.

        Now since I believe that the solution to “bad” speech is “more” speech (not censorship). I will do some name calling of my own.

        Chelsea is an ANGEL. 🙂
        John C. Briggs

    2. Steve,
      Sad that you cannot see the beauty in what GM has created. Works as an EV for daily driving and an ICE for long trips. Just can’t do this in a BEV, sorry.
      Later
      John C. Briggs

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