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!