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Johan de Nysschen speaks: Volt is a car for idiots

Posted by: David Welch on September 04, 2009


In the politically-correct world of corporate America, rarely do you see an executive throw down the gauntlet or talk a little trash. But then, Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen isn’t American and he proudly speaks his mind. Thus was the case when he reportedly called the Chevrolet Volt “a car for idiots” at a recent press event. I give him credit for taking off the mitts before he takes a swing. That kind of honesty is refreshing. Other than General Motors Maverick-in-Chief Bob Lutz and Tesla Motors hip shooter Elon Musk, it’s a prim and proper bunch occupying the C-suites.

But after admiring his moxie, I part company with de Nysschen on this one. First of all, he gets 10 demerits for back pedaling. On Audi’s Facebook page, de Nysschen later wrote, “I do not specifically recall using the term ‘car for idiots.’” Well, the journalist who was present did, and an Audi spokesman told me that they aren’t fighting it. Johan, if you think the car won’t sell or that its business case is a big-time loser, stick to your story.

More to the point, de Nysschen’s comments about the Volt are off the mark. On Facebook, he wrote: “Returning to the Volt, my point was simply one of its economic feasibility today. The 50% or so price increase that the Volt represents over a similar gasoline car cannot be offset through the savings from reduced fuel consumption. The only way to offset the extreme premium for the Volt is through taxpayer-funded subsidies. So I question if that makes economic sense.” Of course it doesn’t make economic sense. But the Toyota Prius didn’t make money from day one, either. New technology rarely does. What the Volt will do is spark interest in electric cars and help get more real-world driving with lithium ion batteries so carmakers can make improvements and reduce costs.

It will also get cities thinking about an putting up charging stations so urban dwellers can charge their cars even if they don’t own a garage. Power utilities will think about grid capacity and setting consumers up with the right charging equipment in their homes. In short, it will help electric-drive technology get from cocoon to flight. Whether it succeeds or not, the Volt and other profit-challenged cars like the Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf will at least be necessary steps toward the electrification of the car. That sounds far from idiotic.

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Reader Comments

C. L. Shannon

September 4, 2009 05:38 PM

No, he's right it is a car for idiots who can do math.

Check it out - the GM Volt uses state of the art Lithium ion batteries that can be deep discharged and recharged no more than 1200 times.
With a 40 mile range per charge that is a total range of 48,000 miles on the battery pack.
Hence, approximately $15,000 must be additionally spent to replace the worn out batteries. That is approximately 31 cents per mile plus about 4 cents per mile for energy.
Thus, owners of the Volt will pay about 35 cents per driven mile, compared to about the 12 cents cost per mile of normal gasoline engine cars.
New batteries, not currently available, are needed with a deep discharge capacity of over 2500 cycles for these type of vehicles to make any sense economically for the owners. It is easy to see that electric and plug in hybrid vehicles, based on Lithium Ion batteries like the Volt, will be huge market failures and driven only by a very limited number of people who cannot do arithmetic.

The Volt is a dog, and at $40K, an insult and a car for idiots.


September 4, 2009 05:48 PM

Looks like Audi will be one brand off my shopping list when I look for my next car.

Bill Simpson of Slidell LA.

September 4, 2009 06:01 PM

So are overpriced Audis.

John L.

September 4, 2009 06:43 PM

Actually, from an economic standpoint, neither the Volt nor the Prius make much sense in the US market anyway.

The last time I ran the numbers, gas prices would have to be in excess of $5/gallon in order for a Prius owner to recover the premium he paid for a Prius over a comparable conventional car in 100,000 miles.

I haven't run the numbers yet, and I suspect the payout for the Volt would be at least as bad, 'though with more variables, including the price of electricity and how far you drove between plug in charges.

If you are in an area with cheap electricity and rarely need to fire up the gas engine on the Volt, it would pay out much faster than if your driving habits required running the engine much of the time and had expensive electricity.


September 4, 2009 07:05 PM

This short-sighted short-term-profit grubbing is pretty much why the automakers are so screwed.

James Mason

September 4, 2009 07:09 PM

Since most levels of your government are flirting with bankruptcy, where will the money for the charging stations you speak of, come from? By borrowing more from the Chinese, or what? I suppose there are always Arnie's IOUs!

Business Week user

September 4, 2009 08:40 PM

Business is a not a social engineering department of government which your article in the case of the Volt shows it is in this case. I agree with the Audi chief. Who knows whether battery power on lithium ion batteries is the way to go? Sure there is a case for creating demand, if you have control of what you are doing and don't have pressure from non-business men but beurocrats wimping you.
I completely agree with the Audi chief actually.


September 4, 2009 09:54 PM

What the Volt will do is let people who worry about gas prices, never have to think about gas prices again (as long as their commute is less than 40 miles round trip). And since it has a backup engine, they cannot get stranded.


September 4, 2009 09:58 PM

The eventual electric car will have industry standard size batteries that easily slide out of the car at stations providing fully recharged battery exchanges. In the time it takes to fill a full gas tank, the batteries are replaced and the driver pays and leaves. With stations reasonably spaced, a range of 100 miles per charge makes long distant trips realistic with todays battery technology. Battery stations would have vertical continuous loop storage while charging (think of dry cleaners closed loop moving rack of clothes).


September 4, 2009 10:13 PM

With this promising health reform combined with a balancing function for price inflation in operation, Chevy Volt, too, is earning competitive edge in price along the way, together with Nissan Leaf.

I for one believe that the U.S. will lead the way in an EV field as the meaningful investing in a battery tech was made.

Even excellent hybrid cars and modern diesels are not comparable to EVs in light of fuel economy as the current fuel price went beyond the level of these autos and they failed to overcome this great recession, I guess.

Even when electricity is produced by coal, an electric vehicle will indirectly release less carbon than a liquid fueled vehicle. One source suggests 60% less:

Overall, It is solidly believed that Nissan Leaf and GM Volt are saving the world, and the other developers that come in a range of 200 to 300 miles between charges are on fast-tract toward mass-market, as well. No Need For Oil dependence And Heartbreaking Wars !


September 4, 2009 11:36 PM

David, you're no idiot. But I am not sure about de Nysschen. Without 'early adopters', as we often see in the computer and electronics world, these industries won't exist.


September 5, 2009 12:22 AM

I don't know about the U.S., but the average Canadian spends between $2500 and $4000 per year on gas (over $4.50 per gallon). If the Volt sells for around $40,000 Canadian, it would be about $8000 to $10,000 more than a nicely equipped Malibu, Camry, or Accord. With a 50 - 65 kms per day range without using gas at all, the average Canadian could potentially never use gas to go to work and back, especially if they can plug in at work. The average cost to charge the car is approx. $1 in power. Then, once the generator kicks in, you get around 75 miles per gallon. Doing the math, the average Canadian would save between $1800 and $3000 per year. Take the average at $2400 per yr, this car would take about 4 yrs to pay for the premium cost (even faster if you live in long commuting cities like Toronto). With the average Canadian keeping their cars between 4 and 5 yrs, how exactly is this a "car for idiots" when you can cut greenhouse gases by 80%, save non-renewable resources, and basically pay for the premium within the time you own the car. Yeah, good comment Johan!!


September 5, 2009 03:26 AM

call a spade a spade.

Electric cars are not for everyone, to some of us who dont drive far enough, thats a God send. But if everybody and his/her cousins start driving one, then it will cause brown out too.
Just like Late Rodney Dangerfield said " I get no respect, when I plugged my shaver in, the Trolley bus in town stopped running"
Most places are not equipped with 220volt or high current charging system.
Enviro cost when battery we toss them out.

How safe is it? Another big unknown.

Is like 30 some years ago many of us jump in with both feet using Propane & Natural gas.
I view Natural gas is a bit safer as N gas are lighter than air, so if it does leak it will rise up. Whereas Propane is heavier than air, it stay at the bottom, if it leaks inside a car it will trap at the bottom, until some sparks to ignite her.
Back in the late 70s quite a few cars ignited while re-fuelling, I didnt know the real cause.
Nowadays do we see that many of these Gas fuelled cars?

Cell phone exploded because of the battery, are these car batteries can be as safe?
God forbid if it went into the water. U also wish its a Beetle too, because it will float.
Or in the event of a flood.

For idiots can be a harsh word, not forget we live in a litigation happy society, any malfunction caused personal injury could clean out the company.

Therefore is kind of an Uphill battle.
or a bit too early to tell.
GM must have gathered lots of useful information when they had those electric cars 10yrs ago? Somehow GM is the kind of company never Persevere long enough, quit 10 hrs to midnight. Is kind of by 2 O'Clock after a good lunch, rub the tummy and drift into oblivious La La land for a long Siesta.

Look at the Fiero & MR2 , they both launch about same time, MR 2 persevered, keep making small changes, just like Mr Turtle just keep working very hard as he has to carry the heavy Carapace /turtle shell.

I could not say Fiero never improved the production, ironically the last yr production is the best as the bugs were ironed out, but kind of too late. The first few yrs were kind of anemic in performance, the handling was better than an Oil tanker. I did drove one, when u turn the steering wheel the nose kind of take a few secs to change direction, when u driving in a hurry it can get you even more excited by the seconds.
The last edition can't be all that bad, an old school mate who is a card carrying car nut, who had owned Urraco, BMW 3.0 CSL Batmobile, Cavalino Rampante 328 and his daily beater is a Fiero GT.


September 5, 2009 09:51 AM

it would require a 16x cost increase in electric networks, which relates to a 16x increase in pollution.

a 16x network and a 16x pollution increase of the current pollution (if everyone switched to electric cars).
so people who buy hybrids or electric are indeed idiots.


September 5, 2009 01:37 PM

I think it was just the typical German disdain for any thing not thought of there. and they want us to buy their diesel vehicles, but they don't work economically. diesel isn't cheaper in the us than gas. and the cost of diesel engines is really expensive to boot! maybe not economically practical without a tax break maybe? in Europe they give diesel a tax break


September 6, 2009 06:40 AM

At $100,000 a throw you can hardly call the Tesla Roadster profit challenged. Which was the hole point of starting out with a high end sports car.
It's making money.
And in the process gets the bugs worked out for the second, more reasonaby (mid range) priced Tesla model S

Jigar Shah

September 6, 2009 11:50 AM

The Volt is a historic automobile. Like it or not, many Americans do not want to make the jump to an electric vehicle yet. The Volt allows them to prove to themselves that the 40 mile electric range is sufficient for most of their needs. More importantly, if fuel cells/hydrogen and other combinations turn out to surprise us, the Volt can be quickly retooled off of gasoline and on to Hydrogen.

It takes money to come out with a radically new platform, but I think GM will be rewarded handsomely for their investment.


September 6, 2009 12:55 PM

Johan de Nysschen then should publicly trash VW's Phaeton as a massive wasted investment, a misplaced marketing effort to elevate the "people's car" brand into Audi's market segment. "Stupid," he should say, "I would be embarrassed being seen next to one, let alone in one," he should add.


September 7, 2009 04:54 AM

A short sighted guy, to him only money matters. The thing that we are living on the same mudball called earth, our cities are polluted, noisy, we are financing terrorism with each dollar we spend on gas and so on, well that's far far away from his world of KPI's and profit margins. Thanks Johan, you can sit down now.

Eric Bladt

September 7, 2009 08:52 AM

Mr. de Nysschen should keep his mouth shut. I bought an AUDI some time ago. The problems started on day one and kept coming.
Never again an AUDI car...


September 7, 2009 11:08 AM

Thinking strictly dollars and cents made no sense for GM. The Prius has had a halo effect on Toyota. The maker of Tundras LandCruisers has green credentials which does result in more showroom traffic. The Volt can have a halo effect and burnish GM's image from the company that killed the EV1 and gave us the Hummer to a company that makes attractive, dependable and fuel efficient cars (which is true in spite of perceptions). Image drives alot of peoples spending decisions, whether that perception is reality or not.


September 7, 2009 11:10 AM

From a mechanical stand point the electric car could compete because of its motors. The EV car could outlast an gas motor by decades. If a person didn't mind the same car for decades. The batteries will improve with development over time. And an increase in electric production could be accomplished through wind and solar instead of coal and natgas.
And everyone forgets that as soon as demand for gas returns the price per gallon will increase to squeeze the consumer.

Henry L.

September 7, 2009 12:26 PM

Electric cars may not make alot of economic sense but shouldn't we start somewhere rather than keeping going on the same path? We should try various solutions and see how they pan out. I am sure gasoline powered engines will still be around for a long time but we should always explore other alternatives.

Ken A.

September 7, 2009 01:19 PM

I gave up on owning cars period! I owned two back to back new cars in the last eighteen years and I just got sick of dealing with the repairs after the got more than fifty thousand miles on them. You would never believe the horror stories I could tell. I hope these new electric cars run better than the old gas engines. I know they will have far fewer moving parts. The number of blantant crooks operating in the repair business is mind blowing. These car companies are solely dependant on doing repair work to make money. I ran a small business soley by renting cars on the weekend for 3 or for days a week from various rental agents. I only needed basic transportation so I got the cheapest little thing on the lot and I was off driving sometimes 300 miles around southern California. I did this for 3 years straight and never had a single problem with a car or an agent. I was driving cars that had less than 10 thousand miles on them and so they ran well. The trouble starts for cars older than the average lease and the average range per year of the typical American driver which means around 40 to 50 thousand miles....look out!!! Bang Bang Bang something under the hood sounds funny. Now I work mostly from home trading stocks for my own investment account and working art projects so I don't even need a car that much. I have been liberated for ten years from auto salesmen, auto repair henchman. I live in an area where I can walk to any place I really need to get to and I can call a cab, ride the bus or rent a car whenever I like. And the best thing about it is that I can keep enough money in my checking account to buy a new Porsche 911 three times over if the mood to resurface as a car owner ever strikes my fancy.


September 7, 2009 03:15 PM

It is short sighted view to consider the volt only on its per mile cost of operation. Although that does matter to consumers in a pressed economy, there is a fantastic book by by Joseph DesJardin called, "Business, Ethics, and the Environment," which essentially states that what point is there in fishing if there are no fish left. He uses this analogy in a number of other instances. But the point is that if you predict the future price of gas, then this car is not quite so dumb. You have to remember that we have failed to respect the environment since the industrial revolution. Long story short we need to reconsider what is really important in a car. To me that would be one that is efficient. One that is relatively insulated from the ever rising cost of gas. To actually calculate actual the cost of owning a car you actually have to calculate maintenance cost, the cost of disposal of a the car (or resale), the impact it has on the roads, the cost of emissions (it is after all something that must be taken into consideration). In addition to that you ought to consider the health impact to yourself and others that is brought about by carbon emissions, and other factors. The book "Cradle to Grave" is worth reading that illustrates this point.

People who like electric cars are not idiots. Just imagine what people with horse drawn carriages thought of those idiots in gasoline cars. There was a point when an BP station wasn't just around the block... clearly we can't call those who believe in electric cars as idiots, by that is not an argument but an instance of an ad hominem attack. But people don't like what they don't know. My father always told me people are reluctant to change, unless change presents a bettermint to their situation or, unless change is forces upon them.

My sense is that some of those opposed to electric cars would be delighted by diesel, which is safer (it does not burn without compression), it is more efficient, less polluting, recently cheaper. But that still does not make the electric car stupid.

The volt is an earnest attempt at a car by GM.... after watching "who killed the electric car" i just wish GM had promoted the EV1.


September 8, 2009 09:51 AM

Say what you want now...but when you have a chance to drive the volt you'll become a fan almost instantly and catch a glimpse of its promise. Read comments from those who have. And remember the same was said about the first ipod....(who would pay that kind of money for essentially an mp3 player with a hard drive inside?). hmmm....

GM Daughter

September 8, 2009 10:44 AM

The Volt is not a car for idiots. It is a car for idealists, which are often confused with idiots by those who don't know better. People with money will buy the car for what it stands for, not what it actually does. As far as the batteries are concerned, in the first 3 or 4 years, you'll buy the existing batteries, but as time goes on the tech will improve and compatible batteries with longer lives and higher capacities will enter the market. Then you'll only replace the batteries every 2-3 years, then every 5-6 years and so on. As the batteries improve, so will the car's range.

Don Allen

September 8, 2009 11:00 AM

With Cap and Trade a real possibility, you couldn't afford to charge up the Volt every night. The Cap and Trade Bill, if signed into law, could triple the average electrical utility bill each month, especially for those in geographical areas which use coal-fired power plants.


September 8, 2009 11:40 AM

While I agree that GM has badly mismanaged the Volt concept,Johan needs to look closer to home for idiots. As a former master auto technician who had the misfortune of working on Audis, I can assure you that they are over-engineered and far too complex to be an affordable long term transportation option when all costs of ownership are included. A friend of mine sells ego-options and repair parts for these overrated, over-priced vehicles, and is making a killing off Audi owners whose egos are far larger than their intellects.

Peter McEntire

September 9, 2009 04:14 PM

I agree, and we are paying for it.

Karlheinz L

September 10, 2009 09:44 AM

I like the comments for it`s wealth of information.

It seems that a lot is about cost - that`s easy sorted -why are so many Hummers, Corvettes, Porsche and Ferraris and Audis around?
Because they are all idiots?
What about Status?
A car is no basic, logical thing - here comes the chance for clever companies like Toyota, Volkswagen....but not GM!
For cost - look no further than a simple Korean/Chinese/ Rumanian car.

For me a hybrid like the Volt makes no sense. It has more parts and weight than a normal car, costs more and does not drive well.

My strategy is to have in future two cars - a petrol for distance and an pure electric - like the Leaf - for short distance.

Keep it simple - and once batteries (Zn/O2?) are getting better the eCar will win.


November 21, 2009 11:27 AM

The simple fact is that the VOLT will be old news and ancient technology by the time it is released. GM continues far behind the pack and it appears they are not going to catch a wave anytime soon. I predict bankruptcy once again and I assure you, the VOLT is going to be a colossal failure.

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