Posted by: David Welch on October 12, 2010
To hear one critic tell it, General Motors got caught in an out-and-out lie when the company described labeled the Chevrolet Volt an extended-range electric vehicle. Edmunds.com said in a headline that “GM Lied.” The Volt is really a hybrid-electric vehicle like the Toyota Prius, Edmunds said. Critics from Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics made a similar argument, though they stopped short of saying GM was dishonest. In any case, there is an electric dust up over the Volt and what to call it. Is it a hybrid or an EV?
The argument goes like this. When the Volt is driving hard, say, over 70 miles per hour or it’s climbing hills, the gasoline engine will directly power the car’s second electric motor, which then turns the wheels. This came as a surprise because GM has billed the car as an electric vehicle that uses the gasoline engine to charge the battery. The company has said that the car’s electric motors draw power straight from the battery. That gasoline engine is only there to charge the battery. GM’s engineers didn’t reveal until recently that the engine can power a secondary electric motor that turns the wheels. Critics say this new revelation makes the Volt a hybrid, because the Prius does drive in a similar way. GM counters that there is no direct mechanical linkage from the gasoline engine to the wheels. So it’s an electric vehicle.
GM opened itself up to this kind of criticism. They should have just explained how it worked in the first place. If GM had just explained in more detail how the Volt worked during the three years of hype leading up to the introduction, the technology geeks, the technology geeks, auto buff magazine writers and green commentariat would have hashed over whether it’s a hybrid or an extended-range EV and been done with it. The debate wouldn’t be making headlines a couple of weeks before GM starts selling the car. But GM was trying to distinguish the Volt from the Prius and establish a leadership position. In point of fact, the Volt is different and more advanced regardless of its label.
That said, I doubt most consumers will care what label anyone slaps on the Volt. This is inside baseball. Eric Noble, whose auto consulting firm The CarLab in Orange (Calif.) interviews consumers about car technology routinely, told me that they don’t care about labels, or when the engine powers the car or the gasoline engine. They ask about battery range, mileage, plug-in requirements and battery durability. They want to know if the fuel savings justifies the extra cost of the car. I also called Dan Becker, who heads up the environmental activist group Safe Climate Campaign. He didn’t care, either. So long as it gets high mileage and delivers low emissions, “I don’t care what you call it,” Becker told me. So this is much ado about nothing. It’s also a flare up that GM could have avoided.