Friday, July 15, 2011

The Electric Car; Not So New An Idea, It Is The New Technology That Is Amazing!

2011 Chevrolet Volt
“Why am I looking at a CHEVY?” a comment with a lot of attitude, if not disgust, was what I heard from an attendee of a recent Cars and Coffee when I brought the 2011 Chevrolet VOLT out to the Great Falls Virginia gathering. He was shocked to find a mere mortal Chevrolet in this prestigious gathering of rare and expensive automobiles. When I shared with him that it was an Electric Car, he looked at me quizzically as if I had two heads, and just walked off in the direction of a collection of Aston Martins and Porsche 356’s.

At this Saturday morning public car show a number of people came up and shared with me their opinions on the Electric Vehicle Technology. Being an early adopter of the Segway® Human Transporter technology, a battery powered electrically propelled platform that transports a single human being, with a range of 20 miles at up to 12.5 mph. I knew that there are plenty of haters of electric transportation technology out there. Though I still found it interesting that the haters seem to feel compelled to share with you, in no uncertain terms, their feelings on why these vehicles should not exist!

A fine display of automobiles at
Great Falls VA Cars and Coffee.
From a couple of very proper Brits who expressed with a British accent, that “This vehicle will not be around in forty years” then turned and gushed over a 1950’s MG, saying, “Now there is an automobile.” To the six foot eight, two ninety, plus pound salesman of the electric smart Four Two who deplored the lack of space in the VOLT, saying that the back seat was just not big enough for him. My only thoughts were, one hundred years ago cars were commonly powered by electricity and buddy, can you even fit in a smart?

But the haters are far outweighed by the lovers of EV technology. People, young and old found the VOLT to be quite impressive, asking about the technology, sharing their knowledge of it, often somewhat misguided, but still very much appreciating the way this “New GM Vehicle” was built. Commenting on the high quality of the fit and finish, and that the VOLT felt like a $40K plus sports sedan, not an American ecnonobox, as they expected from an old line American auto manufacturer.

Studebaker Electric from the early 1900's.
Driving an Electric Vehicle is not something new; plenty of early automobiles were all electric. Back in the days when cars shared the road with horses, the noisy and smelly gasoline engine cars were far out numbered by electric vehicles, which were thought to be superior, especially for urban settings. So much so that in the beginning of the 20th century Studebaker fought to keep its vehicles with an electric power train, but in the end had to go with gasoline engines as the competition was not producing electric vehicles, thus the market was developing for fossil fuel powered vehicles.

Chevrolet Volt engine compartment.
Looking at and driving the VOLT, one would not realize this is an electric car. Though in the past driving an all electric vehicle means you always had to watch your remaining battery charge, to make sure you will end up at your destination! One with a place to plug in and recharge the batteries so you could return home. That is not the case with the VOLT. Plug it in, drive it until you run out of battery charge; it seamlessly changes over to producing its own electricity, until you have the chance to plug it in to recharge the Volt’s batteries, so that you can run with out the generator.

Cutaway of the Voltec powertrain.
First and foremost the VOLT is powered by electricity, with the Voltech® power train, a marriage of an electric motor, a transmission, batteries to power them, and a computer to control them. The big difference between a VOLT and the familiar hybrid vehicle is that this is an all-electric vehicle that travels with its own recharging unit built in, an onboard 1.4 liter four cylinder gasoline engine with a gas tank, refillable at any normal gas station. The gasoline fueled engine powers a generator that then makes electricity. The electricity is either sent to the drive motor, or to charge the batteries. The engine does not drive the vehicle’s power train, which is how the current hybrid models are configured.

A Chevrolet Equinox running a
GM Fuel Cell powertrain.
Driving the VOLT was much like driving any European sports sedan, the handling, the steering the seat feel gave the driver an excellent feel of the road, just as you would have with any European sports sedan. Road manners of the VOLT are top notch. Acceleration and lane changing on the highway was flawless as was the around town stop and go driving ability. Responsiveness was quick and smooth, though more muted than I had felt driving a Tesla Roadster or GM’s Hydrogen Powered Chevrolet Equinox.

Aerodynamic comparison of the
 2011 Chevrolet Volt with a
 1986 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16
The major downfall that this car has, are the sight lines and numerous blind spots, which could all be eliminated with the use of back up camera’s, and front and side detection technology. The cause is the Volt’s aerodynamic design; long “A” pillars that hide a lot of what is ahead and to the right and left sides of the vehicle. The “C” pillar and rear doors require you to turn your head, which is something you should do anyway, so that you do not pull into someone else’s lane. The high rear end and the rounded front corners do not offer a sight line so that you know where the corners of the VOLT really are.

The Volt's passenger compartment
provides plenty of space and comfort

Driving this car brings home that the old way of driving, of knowing the dimensions of your vehicle, setting your side mirrors to a more outboard setting, and just being aware of your surroundings does help, but the addition of the modern technology would make it a better and safer vehicle.

Rear bucket seats astride the center
"hump"where the battery is stored

Air compressor and charger storage
under trunk area.
Interior Comfort is excellent, the VOLT I drove was equipped with heated leather seats, though not electrically adjustable, they were comfortable for both short and long term drives. Due to the “T” shaped battery pack that runs through the center of the car, the rear has bucket seats, which fold down making the hatch area roomy enough to hold plenty of cargo. Even with the rear seats in the upright position there is plenty of space for luggage and packages. Under the rear is a small storage area that keeps the 110v plug in power cord, a heavy gauge yellow wire and EV power adapter, as well as the now common, electric powered air compressor/tire pump, that you find as a standard on most new cars as a weight saving replacement for the spare tire.

Speaking of weight saving, you also find that this car has no optional sunroof, which would also take away on the interior space. The interior is roomy enough for most people, with interior roof height and passenger width spacious enough for the modern American body type.

Volt's center console touch screen
and  touch pads.
Interior technology takes a bit getting use to! Instead of gauges, switches, buttons and dials, pretty much everything is a touch screen or a touch panel. Basic vehicle controls are where you would expect them, stalks for lights, turn signals and wipers, steering wheel controls for cruise control, using a Bluetooth® equipped phone, as well as mute and radio controls. The center console houses numerous touch controls for everything, which big hands can inadvertently cause another switch to be activated. You will find finger activated mechanical pull and push switches to turn the vehicle on and for power levels for the drive train, as well as the electrically powered emergency brake, and in a location that a passenger familiar to classic European cars might mistake it for a power window switch.

For driving you have a normal drive mode, a sport mode, which gives the VOLT a little more umph, and a mountain mode, which when activated, you feel the gasoline powered generator go into heavy duty electricity production to charge the battery so that you have extra power for driving up steep mountain grades.

The center mounted gear shift, feels very clunky, not smooth like the rest of the car, with Park, Reverse, Neutral and two Drive modes, D and L. Very familiar to anyone driving an automatic transmission car. The only difference is that the L position is like Drive, but gives the car more sensitivity to regenerative battery charging activities when you take your foot of the accelerator pedal.
Power usage and production can be
viewed on the touch screen.

Overall styling; this is not the space craft design of the 1990’s GM’s EV1 that was offered by the Saturn division, nor is it the bullet shape of the early Honda hybrids either. In all fairness, it looks like every other car on the road today with a classic Chevrolet grill displaying the familiar bow tie logo (the grill is not open to the engine compartment, like in a regular car, as there is no need for a large airflow to cool the engine.) The swooping sides, roofline and upright rear could be mistaken for a current model Acura. Door clunk on closure gives the car a feel of solidity, something that American cars have lacked. Tires are standard issue low rolling resistance Goodyear radials, just like the tires on any new car today, not run flats.

Volt comes with a 110v plug in charger.
 My overall impression of this vehicle was very good. I would buy this vehicle! Especially if I had less than a 40 mile one way commute and an EV charging station at my destination. With more manufactures’ producing these vehicles, EV charging stations are now becoming more and more common as more communities are supporting the infrastructure for EV technology.

You will still be able to stop at your local gas station
when driving a Chevrolet Volt. The gas fuels the
onboard electric generator.
The value is there for this vehicle, and with the current high resale values of Hybrids, the VOLT will no doubt retain its value when it comes into the resale market in the coming years. Purchasing it entitles you to a $7500 tax credit making EV ownership more attractive, though you have to have at least $7500 in federal taxes to be able to deduct this credit in the year you purchase the vehicle. In the current cost cutting political climate it is doubtful that we will see that tax credit turn into a tax rebate upon purchase.

EV technology will only continue to improve in the future, GM has done an excellent job in producing the VOLT, and I look forward to seeing what GM has next in the EV Technology pipeline. So for the haters out there: Get used to it; you are going to see this technology developing a whole new automotive enthusiast community!
GM Futureliner from the 1940's Autorama traveling technology shows put on by GM.