Into the eye of the storm…

I’m headed to Detroit this morning, for the Business of Plugging In conference, and to participate in one of the “waves” of the Volt launch experience that GM is holding for the media. I’m curious to hear from the source the new explanation for the Volt’s operating design that made everyone go so darn nutty yesterday in an episode dubbed  “Voltgate” by those who play on the internets.

I was going to write something more substantive about all of this, but it’s already been flogged within an inch of its life. So I’ll call your attention to John Voelcker’s excellent piece of perspective, through which y’all will be stuck getting a dose of me too.

I don’t want to let GM completely off the hook here; they could have handled this piece of information a lot better, and I don’t buy the “we were waiting on patent approval” excuse. Even if, there’s no reason to have fallen so stubbornly on the EV sword, especially given the sensitivity around the semantics, and persistent cynicism among some about GM being in this space at all. But from a technical perspective, this is not likely going to meaningfully change the everyday experience of driving this car. The first 40 miles (depending on your right foot) are what will matter most to consumers, and the Volt will continue to deliver those miles in EV mode. And most drivers won’t be able to tell which component is doing exactly what even after that, any more than they can explain how their current car operates. But obviously, I’ll see for myself soon enough how much any of this matters- and you’ll no doubt hear about it.

13 thoughts on “Into the eye of the storm…

  1. Just one more nail in the EV coffin. Even as GM was promising you the EV moon, they were planning a planetary gear around your neck. Serial hybrid indeed! Cars are supposed to have engines that run on (ahem) gasoline. All electric is still crazy talk, if you ask me.
    Vroom, vroom!

    1. I would say another nail in GM’s coffin. The Volt is a plug-in hybrid period. GM shouldn’t have tried to con people into believing it is an EV with a range extender. If they had stuck to the facts, they wouldn’t have attracted as much attention, but then there wouldn’t be this fallout. Time for a new marketing team.

  2. Uh, it’s quite common to not announce things because you’re waiting for patent papers to be filed. Patents can be ruled invalid if information you’re patenting is common knowledge. A recent example is Chip Yates’ electric bike he showed at The Battery Show last week (see Chip Yates (SWIGZ.COM Racing) unveils electric superbike motorcycle). He expressed relief to me at the show that their patent stuff had been filed BEFORE the show so they could more openly talk about stuff. I, myself, have three patents I earned during my career in software engineering and had training from the company I worked for on the need for not talking about filed patents until they’re filed. FWIW I’m getting to do a test ride of the Volt later this week…

    1. David, I totally get that. My point was that even if they didn’t want to get specific about the details because of the patent, they didn’t have to stomp their feet for the last four years and insist so staunchly that the Volt has nothing in common with a PHEV. They painted themselves into a corner with their own messaging- which they still could have gotten around now with any number of better executed explanations. Unfortunately, many people are way more upset about feeling misled than the nuance of the technology itself, and that worries me.

      1. Chelsea, right, that view on it came while writing my article about this. There’s plenty of things they could have said without revealing the implementation details. But they insisted on painting themselves with the “Electric Vehicle” label.

        On the one hand there is our striving for accuracy and truth, to which GM has failed. It’s not the first time a corporation has lied in a big way, won’t be the last. On the other hand is it really important that the Volt is one kind of hybrid (parallel hybrid) or another kind of hybrid (serial hybrid.. cough.. EREV)? To the purpose of getting clean cars (well, less damaging cars) on the road the Volt is a step in the right direction irregardless of what kind of hybrid it is.

      2. I don’t think it’s important whether the Volt is an EREV, PHEV, etc., as most consumers don’t know the difference. And I think it’s too heavy handed to say that GM lied in a big way, or that they have failed in striving in truth and accuracy. To their credit, they’ve been more transparent and have offered up more technical information about and access to their vehicle than any other OEM, including Nissan. And I do think they really do see their car as fundamentally different than a PHEV, so I’m not sure there was a true attempt to lie- and to the earlier comments about this not really being a huge deal from a technical perspective, whatever they did wasn’t “in a big way”, in my book. But, they need to get better at properly considering how *others* view these sorts of things, and accept how very sensitive both the media and the public is to the semantics and nuances of the things they say- especially as they’re crafting marketing messages as we speak. If not done carefully, and in a way that appeals to the mainstream buyers they’re ultimately shooting for while not alienating the early adopters in the process, they could have similar ramifications.

      3. Chelsea, GM calling the Volt a EREV from the start, bothered me. I was willing to cut them some slack as they said they were considering producing a pure BEV in the near future. Their continued rhetoric and attacks against BEV’s made me suspicious that wasn’t true. The final straw for me was when they tried to copyright “Range Anxiety”. This latest revelation only confirms my lack of trust in GM.
        No trust equals no sale.

      4. Keith- understand on EREV, though while I think it was a marketing mistake, it didn’t bother me from a “trust” standpoint. It was meant to be a policy term for use with CARB, etc., and to distinguish the Volt from both an EV and a PHEV. Given that it is meaningfully different than both, I’m ok with that- but it was utterly confusing to the public to use with them. And I’ve pestered them about the range anxiety thing- seems to have been one guy running with what he thought was a great idea, not understanding the implications. It’s silly and a little disorganized, but it happens within all big companies. On that one, I’m more interested to see what they actually use in the marketing, not what story the media makes out of it. In all of this, what they do matters more than what they say- both GM and the others.

      5. Chelsea, I got to test drive the Volt in San Francisco last week. It’s a pretty decent car. However your point about their Range Anxiety statements … well, the people at this VoltUnplugged event seemed to have a talking point they said over and over. I wrote about it here: Will fear, sex or tombstones sell electric vehicles? Basically I walked away from the event wondering why they’re turning to fearism to sell the Volt. This event was meant as a public meeting giving an opportunity for the public to see the Volt, indicating that what they said is indicative of their marketing messaging direction.

      6. Fair enough, David- I’ve heard it from individuals as well. Still, this single point doesn’t bother me as much as some other issues about the program. If they didn’t think there was range anxiety, they wouldn’t have built a car with a safety net. So I expect some product differentiation based on that in the marketing. Question becomes (for me) how it’s conveyed- but the Chevy folks will tell you that they’ve heard an earful from me on these fronts.

  3. Me of all people agree that seeing all those crushed EV1s in “Who Killed The Electric Car?” is an unforgettable memory and that GM needs to construct a targeted PR campaign to prove their intentions are truly honorable in the 21st Century if they want to win back US consumers who are also loyal electric car enthusiasts.

    Have fun in Detroit!

  4. I think John’s article you linked to summed all this up quite well- tempest in a teacup- same phrase I used last night on another site (great minds…). As has been pointe out, if this had been any other company, it would have been a footnote. For example, I am amazed at the lack of articles concerning the Leaf’s battery management and temperature control system- Nissan is getting a very big pass on this.

    FWIW, I think the Volt is still an EREV, and at worse, it transitions from an EREV to something else on rare occassion (at least, for most folks). Certainly, a PHEV does not describe the Volt, neither in the traditional sense, nor, though I am not quite certain, even in those ‘extended range mode, over 70mph’ scenerios.

    Given that this is GM, however, I think they were between a rock and a hard place on this one- damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t reveal this mode before now. Given the secrecy within which Automakers usually operate, this should not have been that big a surprise, especially on any sort of Hybrid Technology. As an example, if Toyota had gotten a glimpse of this, and had been able to cobble an ‘improvement’ to their Prius hybrid drive system, GM could have found themselves in the same boat as Ford, paying royalties to Toyota when their patent was denied as an ‘obvious improvement’ to current technology.

  5. Good luck in Detroit. Since we can’t trust GM, however, can you check something out for me that will be a showstopper before I’ll agree to buy a Volt: I need a car that can get me where I need to be quickly. This involves significant driving at sustained speeds at 75 mph and higher. Will the Volt handle this without gasoline?

    I realize it probably won’t go the full 40 miles purely on electrons at these speeds. I don’t intend to let GM slow down my life because they don’t respect me as much as they do their conventional ICE customers. I want to drive electric to save the planet by enabling the use of a different energy source, not dumb my life down just so I can use oil a little longer.

    I hope they send a Volt home with you.

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