Failure to plan

I am having a whole lot of trouble coming up with any sympathy for this guy:

The protagonist in this story, Todd Anderson, wants to help the environment, so he bought a 2016 Chevrolet Volt. Not a bad choice — decent electric range for around-town jaunts and a gas generator for out-of-town trips. Another bonus: $12,500 provided by Ontario taxpayers to help him foot the bill. The problem is, he has nowhere to charge it, and this is the city’s fault.

Anderson says he has to run an extension cord to his outdoor parking spot (kitty corner to his home) in order to juice up the Volt. He has installed a recharging station on his front lawn, but the street in front of his house is a no parking zone. If he parks there (and he does), Anderson has to run a cord across the sidewalk, potentially tripping people, while parking tickets collect under his wiper blades.

Some might say that he could have avoided the situation by not purchasing a vehicle that requires a driveway. Or, he could wait until his living accommodations allow him to easily use such a vehicle. Anderson doesn’t see it that way. The city, he says, should make it possible for residents to charge their cars on the street.

“I don’t think someone who drives a gas car would put up with not being able to use a gas station on a daily basis,” he told the Toronto Star.

You’d think he might have been aware of these things before he bought the vehicle.

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Also decidedly unclear on the concept

I mean, it’s not like he pre-ordered this from Amazon or anything:

If there is a price reduction after you purchased something such as car, how do you get that rebate? I just bought a 2013 Chevy Volt on July 3. Now, the manufacturer has dropped the price by $5000. How do I get the same deal as everyone is getting now?

The first two words I thought of were “As if,” though two different words may have occurred to you.

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Tesla turns a buck

Several of them, in fact:

Tesla Motors announced [Sunday] that sales of its Model S vehicle exceeded the target provided in the mid-February shareholder letter. As customers who note their Model S serial number this weekend will realize, vehicle deliveries (sales) exceeded 4,750 units vs. the 4,500 unit prior outlook. As a result, Tesla is amending its Q1 guidance to full profitability, both GAAP and non-GAAP.

Well, whaddaya know, people will buy those electric buggies. And they prefer the pricier models, too:

Also being announced today is that the small battery option for the Model S will not enter production, due to lack of demand. Only four percent of customers chose the 40 kWh battery pack, which is not enough to justify production of that version. Customers are voting with their wallet that they want a car that gives them the freedom to travel long distances when needed.

The customers who ordered this option will instead receive the 60 kWh pack, but range will be software limited to 40 kWh. It will still have the improved acceleration and top speed of the bigger pack, so will be a better product than originally ordered, and can be upgraded to the range of the 60 kWh upon request by the original or a future owner.

Which makes perfect sense to TTAC’s Derek Kreindler:

Given that Tesla’s customer base is made up of extremely wealthy EV enthusiasts who are looking to the Model S as either a) a status symbol b) a third car or c) an outright toy, the death of the 40 kWh model makes sense. Few would realistically want a base Model S whether because of status signalling or the reduced performance (in terms of both acceleration and range). Customers interested in the Model S are much more likely to gravitate to the 60 kWh model or the full-bore 85 kWh version, in the same way that the S63 AMG is the best way to use the Mercedes S-Class as an expression of one’s wealth.

Based on this premise, the upcoming Cadillac ELR, a somewhat Voltier Volt with a $60k price tag, might actually outsell the cheaper Chevy.

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Now get out there and cell

The White House has backpedaled just a bit from that “one million electric vehicles” goal, having figured out that, well, it’s not going to happen any time soon. I still think it will happen, but probably not in the next four years. Meanwhile, we’re up to our anodes in batteries:

The lack of acceptance by consumers is creating a glut of batteries. LG Chem Michigan, a unit of the Korean conglomerate LG, for example, was awarded more than $150 million in funding by the U.S. Department of Energy under the 2009 Recovery Act to help construct a $304 million lithium-ion battery cell manufacturing plant in Michigan. It was supposed to create 440 jobs. But the company is still supplying batteries for the Chevy Volt from its Korean plant, and fewer than half the jobs in Michigan have been realized. Why? Lack of demand. LG Chem and the DOE have just been reprimanded by the DOE Inspector General for misusing taxpayer funds and not delivering on stated goals.

Emphasis added, because it seems so improbable that a government agency might complain about taxpayer funds being misused — even to itself, by itself.

Perhaps the upcoming Cadillac ELR, a Volt in a three-piece suit, will use up some of that battery capacity.

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Volts against the current

General Motors, apparently stung by reports of melted-down 120-volt charging cords in early Chevy Volts, decided, reasonably enough, that the best thing they could do was replace the lot of them, to “offer a more consistent charging experience.”

The charger unit was reworked for 2013, and by “more consistent,” apparently they meant “slower”:

In self-help groups on the Internet, the culprit was quickly found: GM had reduced the default circuit load of the charger from 12 Ampere to 8 Ampere.

A third less current, and a greater safety margin — at the expense of slower charging. Now it seems to me that if you’re going to tool around in one of these mediumfalutin’ electrical land-based puddlejumpers, you’d probably want to hook it up to a two-twenty line and be done with it. But that runs into money, and buyers of econoboxen resent the idea of spending money if there’s a way around it. So this is no surprise:

Volt owners found out that there is a way to make the Volt charge at 12 Ampere and therefore faster. But that is buried a few levels deep in a maze of menus — and most annoyingly, it can’t be made sticky. Must wade through menus every time.

The workaround goes like this:

[O]wners only have to push the “Leaf” button, select the charging tab, then charge level, and then push the amps they would like to charge at. You can change this level while driving.

“Leaf” button? Do buyers of Nissan’s Leaf get a “Volt” button? It sounds like it’s the same darn charger unit.

And a 120V outlet should be good for 15 amps — assuming everything in the circuit is in perfect operating condition. Heck, my lawn mower draws 12 amps. Then again, it isn’t on for 16 hours at a stretch either.

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Negative Voltage

Motor Trend Editor-at-Large Angus MacKenzie divulged in his January column, historically devoted to the magazine’s Car of the Year selection, that two years earlier, the announcement of the Chevy Volt had drawn some, um, critical correspondence. An example:

I’ve seen your Car of the Year announcement and realize how fully and completely hollow your rag is. You pass your biases off as fact and outright lies to push your liberal agenda. The Volt is garbage and you know it, but you have crawled in bed with the gutless wannabe dictator Obama. I’m an electronics design engineer by trade, for 32 years, so I know what a crock the Volt is. Americans are not European pussies, like evidently you folks are. No one wants this piece of crap, and darn few will be sold. Only a social and political whore could have so completely sold out their integrity for a joke of a car no man with any balls could possibly want. It is not a triumph nor milestone, just a political waste of time and money.

Now what I want to know is this: why would someone ready to point an accusative finger at “European pussies,” or at a “social and political whore,” characterize the putatively low sales of the vehicle as a relatively bloodless “darn few?” Is there a little device in Microsoft Word to advise you that you’ve maxed out your pejoratives-per-paragraph quota? And if if the software is that smart, why didn’t it beep at the risible “fully … hollow?”

MacKenzie says this was one of the more polite letters that came in:

… no egregiously homophobic slurs, no sudden threats of grievous bodily harm, and no suggestion we’re acolytes of either Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx (hey, political theory is complicated stuff, y’know).

I’ve been critical of some MT stuff over the years — see, for instance, this evisceration of tech director Frank Markus for talking out of his exhaust manifold — but I try to keep the invective on target. Besides which, I am growing weary of this sudden upsurge, as it were, of guys who whine about how American manhood is under attack. Why so sensitive, bro?

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A Volt a day

Well, almost. Serra Chevrolet in Southfield, Michigan — former home of American Motors, if I remember correctly — is moving about 25 Chevy Volts every month.

And oh, they do try hard:

The dealer trains each salesperson specifically on the Volt for at least 12 hours and encourages them to cross-sell the car to customers that come in looking for anything from an SUV to a midsize to a compact. To put a green point on the deal, about 15 percent of the dealer’s electric power is provided by two windmills located behind the building.

“You don’t want that big, hulking Suburban.”

I wonder if that’s ever actually worked.

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Apparently somebody likes it

Opel AmperaThe grotesque blob to the left is one of the two winners of the 2012 European Car of the Year award, and its sheer hideosity, to me anyway, suggests something Peugeot might have come up with after hitting the schnapps really, really hard. But no, this is an American car with a schnoz transplant: the Opel Ampera — to be sold in the UK with a Vauxhall badge — is the European version of the currently-in-hibernation Chevrolet Volt.

Apparently Volkswagen’s tiny Up!, exclamation point included, took second place, and the worldwide Ford Focus finished third.

Both Volt and Ampera will be sold in Europe, though Opel, being ostensibly a more prestigious name than Chevrolet, carries a higher list price: €42,900 versus €41,950 (including VAT). The Vauxhall variant, due in the spring, starts at £33,995 including VAT, but before Her Majesty’s Plug-In Car Grant.

Eventually, I’m told, the Volt will be sold in Australia as a Holden, and it will probably look better than either the Chevy or the Opel.

Still undetermined: if, after invoking Volt and Ampere, GM will come up with more electrical names for future EVs. (Watt TF, perhaps?)

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A re-Volting development

Maximum Bob Lutz, GM’s original champion of the Chevrolet Volt, says that those damn wingnuts are badmouthing the car for no reason. The worst offender:

[T]he Oscar for totally irresponsible journalism has to go to The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, with, as its key guest, Lou Dobbs. Amid much jocular yukking, the Volt was depicted as a typical federal failure. In attempting to explain why Chevy has sold fewer than 8,000 Volts, Dobbs states, flatly, “It doesn’t work.” He elaborates, “It doesn’t go fast and go far on electricity. What happens is it catches fire,” adding that Chevy has recalled some 8,000 Volts. Bill O’Reilly, nodding approvingly, helpfully interjects: “So they’ve recalled cars that haven’t been sold.” Boiled down to the subtext, Dobbs’ message was this: “All Volts catch fire, and therefore all Volts have been recalled.” That simply isn’t the case.

The NHTSA, in fact, has declared that the Volt is no more likely to catch fire than any other car, though some people still insist that the fix is in. And recalling cars that haven’t yet been sold is nothing unusual.

Besides, if the Volt were a “typical federal failure,” it would look like this.

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On buying Volts

Bill Quick spurns the Chevrolet Volt — they’d have to pay him to take one, he says — which prompted regular commenter Lorenzo to note:

In an earlier age, it would have been a limited production Cadillac for a particular clientele at a high price, introducing technology that would trickle down later to the rest of the GM lineup. Had they done that, GM could have used the car to demonstrate their engineering chops in new tech, with small numbers that could be tended to more closely, as all new tech must be, and explained as “exclusive” service.

The General did in fact build a Cadillac version as a concept, under the ungainly name “Converj”; after hemming and hawing for many months, GM decided to add it to the Cadillac line as the “ELR,” not to be confused with ELO, at a price which is supposed to undercut Tesla’s Model S, which starts at $50k before you pick your battery pack.

Had they started with a Cadillac, I suspect they would have sold just as many — or just as few, depending on your perspective. And when this technology filtered down to Chevyland, it would have one built-in selling point: “Hey, this is like that Caddy, only 15 grand cheaper!” But now the Cadillac faithful won’t touch it, because it’s going to be a glitzed-up Chevy. Can you say “Cimarron”? (Said the guy who drives an Infiniti based on a five-grand-cheaper Nissan model.)

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No Volts for Mitt

Mitt Romney is not impressed with the Chevrolet Volt:

If you want to know exactly what Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney thinks about the Chevrolet Volt, listen to his laugh before he answers a question about the car posed to him during a radio interview on WRKO in Boston recently. Romney was asked what he thought about the car, and he responded with a dismissive-sounding laugh by labeling the plug-in hybrid an “idea whose time has not come.” He later explained that his attitude is proved correct by the Volt’s low sales numbers. Whatever the reason, he clearly does not approve of the car.

This from a man who can’t build up any additional market share in his own political party. It is to laugh.

The last Chevy so politicized was the Corvair, half a century ago, and it suffered from the same problem: nobody liked it but the buyers. I suspect the Volt story will play out the same way, with all manner of yammering in the air while GM quietly fixes any lingering issues with the machine — but of course by then it will be too late.

If Aunt Mittunia wants my vote, he’ll rechannel his wrath towards those Washington hotheads who don’t know anything about cars except that they want to regulate them.

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Charge more

Optional engines are still the rule rather than the exception in the American car market: almost everything passing itself off as a “family” sedan comes with a base inline-four, though a few grand extra will get you a V6 or at least a turbo for that four, and pickup buyers revel in their ability to select exactly the right engine for what they imagine are their needs.

The hybrids and the electrics, up to now, hadn’t offered such options. Tesla’s upcoming Model S has the same 300-kW (about 400 hp) motor throughout the line. However, Tesla will be offering three different battery packs: the larger the pack, the greater the range and the higher the performance. The base version ($50k after the Federal tax credit) gets a 40-kWh pack, reportedly good for 0-60 in 6.5 seconds and a range of 165 miles. Ante up another ten grand and get the 65-kWh pack, cutting 0.6 seconds off zero-to-sixty and extending range to 230 miles. Yet another ten grand will bring you the 85-kWh pack, bringing you to a 300-mile range and slicing 0-60 to 5.6. (There’s a “performance” version beyond that, with a high-performance inverter, that drops 0-60 into the mid-fours.) The best-selling pure-electric, the Nissan Leaf, comes with a modest 24-kWh battery pack; Chevrolet’s Volt carries 16 kWh.

All the Tesla battery packs will carry an 8-year warranty, though only the 85-kWh version specifies unlimited mileage.

(See also the pricing analysis at The Truth About Cars.)

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Now that’s extended range

Last year, General Motors gave Jay Leno one of the very first Chevrolet Volts. (Like he doesn’t have enough cars already.) They were thoughtful enough to turn it over to him with a full (9.3 gallons) tank of gas — which, says Leno, he hasn’t used up yet in over ten thousand miles:

“It’s my daily driver,” he said. “It really is. I commute in it to work every day. My commute, and all my other daily running around, totals less than 35 miles.”

Chevrolet claims that the Volt can travel about 40 miles on electric power alone, under normal driving conditions, before the juice in the batteries would be depleted, after which the car’s small gasoline engine would provide added range.

“You get 40 miles free, as they say,” Mr. Leno said. “Because of the way I drive it, it almost never kicks into gasoline mode.”

Which is a good thing, because the Volt requires premium. Then again, Jay Leno can probably afford it.

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It’s a better car, except when it isn’t

There are times when I just can’t figure out Consumer Reports.

In November, there’s a sidebar in the Cars section that says the following:

We now recommend the [Chevrolet] Volt plug-in hybrid after new data from our 2011 Annual Auto Survey shows it earned much better than average reliability. Very few of the 116 Volt respondents had any serious problems in the first few months of ownership.

Which seems reasonable to me. All the major hybrids — Toyota, Honda, Ford — are showing better-than-decent reliability figures, perhaps because of the extra development time that goes into hybrid design: you’ve got to have pretty tight tolerances, or it won’t work at all. If the sample size seems small, well, there are only a couple of thousand Volts out there; it’s at least as statistically valid as responses on, say, 15,000 Camrys. (If you own a Porsche, your mileage may vary.)

In the CR road tests, the Volt scored an okay, if not inspiring, 67, about four points behind the baby Lexus (CT200h) hybrid.

None of this would pose a problem except that in the same issue, they test a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, their sample of which proved to be deeply flawed: it scored, they said, “too low to recommend.” The Sonata rolled up a score of 69, two points above the Volt.

Now it was my understanding that CR’s reliability ratings and road-test scores had nothing to do with one another. The criteria for Recommended:

“… did well in our road tests, had average or better reliability in our subscriber survey, and performed at least adequately if included in government or insurance-industry safety tests.”

The safety details for the Sonata Hybrid, as given, look fine to me, and better than anything else tested in that issue. Something here doesn’t add up.

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Misery compromise

Kim Reynolds drove a Chevrolet Volt from Detroit to Los Angeles for the October issue of Motor Trend, and the general dearth of charging stations along the way prompted this tongue-in-cheek observation:

Nissan Leaf drivers attempting to cross the country might be the solution to our nation’s dwindling rural population. Eventually, they’ll become stranded far from the coast’s handy plugs, and be forced to find an apartment and a job.

At least, I think it was tongue-in-cheek.

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Maybe Canada should annex us

Ho-hum. Another day, another ill-informed bureaucrat:

To show her support for American workers, President Obama’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis, has junked the standard black limo and purchased a new Chevrolet Equinox to ride around Washington in. The problem: the crossover SUV is built and assembled in Canada from parts also made in Canada.

Of course, the “domestic-content” figure you see on the Monroney sticker includes, by law, Canadian content, and the Equinox, which is considered 66 percent “domestic,” makes a pretty good showing next to, say, Chevy’s Volt, which checks in with 40 percent.

And anyway, Canadian autoworkers these days make more than their US counterparts:

It’s cheaper to build in Mexico, and thanks to 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement, it comes with little penalty. Labor rates account for less than 10 percent of overall vehicle cost, [Matteo] Fini [of IHS Automotive] says. But within that, the difference is significant. In 2010, Canadian autoworkers averaged $38.77 an hour in U.S. dollars, including benefits. Their U.S. counterparts averaged $33.46. Mexican autoworkers, in contrast, made just $3.75 an hour.

Pejman Yousefzadeh observes:

Of course, it might have been better for all involved if instead of engaging in economic nationalist showboating, the Labor Secretary — and the rest of the Obama Administration, for that matter — used this opportunity to teach people that the world economy is interconnected, that goods and services have a distinctly transnational aspect to them, and that as a consequence, it would be counterproductive (to say the least) to use economic nationalism as an excuse for destructive policies like protectionism, or the imposition of tariffs that lead to a trade war.

But wouldn’t someone have to teach the Administration first?

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A bit of elasticity

I have never had much faith in dashboard MPG readings, having seen both 60 and 6 mpg during the same trip in a borrowed Infiniti G35. Apparently Nissan hasn’t learned anything, according to Kim Reynolds at Motor Trend (8/11):

[T]he Leaf’s [range] display is virtually an info-slinky. Pull away from the charger with an indicated 106-mile range, and it’ll drop eight miles by the end of the block. I found myself finally ignoring the numbers and counting the remaining battery bar-graph segments, but even this is iffy as, per Mike Duoba of Argonne National Lab, “a battery is like a rubber bucket.”

The EV blog Electric Cars are for Girls attempts to explain this phenomenon:

Most of the confusion in the computer calculated range is that it constantly recalculates available range based on whether you’re going fast or slow or up or down hill. It figures that say you’re presently going up a two mile grade that your range based on that climb until your batteries are depleted. (It doesn’t know it’s only for two miles.) As soon as you reach the top and go down the other side it recalculates based on the down hill and your range goes back up again. You just have to understand how it thinks and you will get that light bulb moment and not worry.

Emphasis added. Okay, fair enough. Obviously Nissan can’t make these things psychic.

Then again, back to Reynolds in MT:

Unless you drive like a maniac, if the Volt’s display says it will go 37 miles in EV mode, it’ll deliver between 36 and 38.

What is Chevy doing right?

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In a head-to-head comparo (one of six) in the August ’11 issue, Car and Driver recommends the Chevrolet Volt over the Lexus CT200h hybrid, and scribe Aaron Robinson demonstrates his mastery of the fine art known as Praising With Faint Damns:

Lord knows, it’s not gorgeous. And the cockpit’s tall, square screens and touch-sensitive buttons look like the designers locked themselves up with a Commodore PET, a Betamax, and the original Tron on loop.

But it’s not often that you get to park pioneering propulsion technology in your garage.

Robinson, that rotter, has now given me the urge to see one of these contraptions for myself, even though I’ve seen the pictures. Then again, how was he to know that I’ve owned several Commodore machines and still have a Betamax and a copy (on laserdisc, yet!) of Tron?

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Finally, some economies of scale

The Chevrolet Volt goes national this fall — dealers in all 50 states are now taking orders, though most of the country won’t see the car until November — and GM has announced that the $41,000 base price will be reduced to $39,995. (The $7500 Federal tax credit continues.) A Volt tricked out with everything on the option sheet will creep into the $46,000 range, assuming the dealers don’t slap a few thousand worth of “market adjustment” onto the sticker, which is a lot to assume.

What no one knows so far is how much real demand there will be for Chevy’s plugmobile once the floodgates are opened. Worst-case scenario is something like what happened with the US version of the smart fortwo: everybody who wanted one got one early, and then sales tanked. About the only thing we can be sure of is that Glenn Beck won’t buy one.

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An obligation to be discharged

In a piece called “The EV Expectation Gap,” The Truth About Cars editor Edward Niedermeyer reproduces this graph from an Accenture study, and it looks to me like electric cars like Nissan’s Leaf are going to have a whole lot of trouble selling to anyone beyond committed green folk:

Survey results from Accenture May 2011

Survey respondents evidently want a single charge to last for eight days’ worth of driving.

One current EV — Tesla’s $100k-plus Roadster — claims a range close to 400 km, though it seats only two, snugly, and cargo space is theoretical at best. And while it does zero to sixty in a shade under four seconds, actually verifying this for yourself will cut into that range rather substantially.

The Chevrolet Volt, with its gasoline-engine backup, can actually pull off something close to a 400-km range for less than half what Tesla asks for the Roadster, and it seats four. I suppose there might be EV purists out there who reject the Volt because it occasionally burns some gasoline, and premium gasoline at that. If there’s a lot of them, Niedermeyer’s conclusion seems inevitable:

[T]here’s a giant disconnect (nearly ten-fold in fact) between the actual number of kilometers driven each day and the range expectations for future EV purchases. Meanwhile, 62% of respondents rejected battery swapping, the most credible current solution for range anxiety, for reasons that are not immediately clear. In short, Energy Secretary Chu had better be right when he says EV range will triple and costs will be reduced over the next six years… otherwise, EVs will die a quick death at the hand of consumers’ outsized range expectations.

And this time they won’t be able to blame General Motors.

Addendum: “In a land where 40-mile commutes are a lot more common than 4-mile ones, the Nissan Leaf has a tough row to hoe.”

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