Volt Jump-starts GM
By Ron Erb
General Motor's Chevy Volt represents more than an environmentally friendly, responsible, sustainable, practical plug-in hybrid car. Chevy's green entry into the scramble to replace our family transports is a big step towards weening America from foreign oil. With GM's international presence behind the sleek, quick, high-tech machine, it could make a global impact.
America impressed the world with Yankee ingenuity during most of the twentieth century. More recently, the U. S. of A. taught the world about marketing. From selling cigarettes to soda water, the United States dazzled the planet. Ironically, the former Big Three marketed themselves into dire straits with high profit SUV's, trucks and muscle cars. When seeking sympathy for their situation, car makers claim they gave Americans what they wanted. But why were soccer moms so eager for 4-wheel-drive mall monsters? Could it have been the advertising?
While the big wheels turned and the profits rolled in, the world changed in two important ways. Both trends will push car makers well into the new century.
New communications technologies pierce international borders creating communities that never existed. People learn how interconnected we all are and about the problems we share. Cell phones and the Internet make broadcasting a push-button operation. Citizen journalism and individual communications make it increasingly difficult for corporations to act in purely selfish ways. Profits depend on global trade and international responsibility. People in America ask, if the Chinese can make electric cars, why can't Detroit?
But the Chinese want American cars! And China's race to economic powerhouse put the brakes on Detroit's SUV joy ride. This second trend dominates world markets in three ways.
China's oil thirst makes U.S. cheap gasoline a thing of the past. Gains in U.S. oil production, wherever they come from, will do little to dent global oil prices. Burdensome U.S. government oil subsidies will draw increasing criticism as the country's debt soars.
China's huge market for cars and its mounting pollution problems mark a great opportunity for American innovation. Chinese people do love American cars, but if other manufacturers offer cleaner, cheaper cars, Detroit will loose.
International car companies will need manufacturing bases in China to compete, whether through Chinese partnerships or stand-alone operations. Chinese manufacturing will be necessary to save with economies of scale and shipping. Wise car companies will partner with Chinese battery and car manufacturers, taking advantage of the Chinese government's financial support.
While the challenges are huge, so are the opportunities. GM, if it follows through with 2010 delivery of Volt, may emerge at the top of the hybrid heap. Designers at General Motors hope to produce a visually appealing car. Volt doesn't look like a hybrid. It doesn't look like a Prius. While not exactly the concept car, the images released do follow sight lines similar to many other American cars. Volt might be considered a hot car. Let's call it the Tesla effect. The high-end Tesla roadster blasted the reputation of electric cars as dowdy, slow, sluggish electric cars of the past. Volt could be considered a sports sedan. Marketing savvy coupled with innovation might bring forth a car America can love. Even if it is good for us!
Volt differs from Prius in an important way. Prius uses a gasoline engine aided by an electric motor. Computer control switches between them as needed. Electric power works mostly at low speeds, while at highway speeds the gas engine takes over. (This is not true of Prius plug-in modifications.) Volt should be able to drive at highway speeds, within its range, like a pure electric car. When the batteries get weak, the gas engine runs a generator that powers the batteries and the motor. To simplify, the Volt is an electric car that carries a gasoline generator to extend the range.
Some Americans certainly would not buy a Prius (if they could get one) because Prius is not an American car. As General Motors integrates Volt technology into other models, more Americans will enter the pool of possible hybrid buyers. This marketing potential will help plug-ins become acceptable to American buyers. Volt's first 40 miles of all-electric driving should ease American's into seeing all-electric vehicles as an option.
By expanding the market for plug-in, clean running machines, and with the manufacturing might to eventually turn out millions of such cars, General Motors and Volt technology can make a significant difference in oil consumption and an impact on our environment.
General Motors announced plans to send Volt technology to foreign markets. Europe may be especially ready for Volt-style hybrids. Foreign owners keep cars much longer than Americans and pay higher fuel prices. Hybrid initial costs would be easier to amortize. An important benefit of exporting the high tech cars might be a better impression of America. A chance to reduce the carbon footprint of drivers around the world could only help make the United States seem part of the solution for a change.
Perhaps the greatest impetus for the Volt's success swells from the frustration and anger of the American people. An open ear at water coolers from coast to coast burns with talk of high gas prices and few alternatives. Whether they blame politicians, car companies or OPEC, people are fed up with a lack of leadership. They want to make a difference and don't see how. General Motors, if it keeps the Volt promise, could benefit from a watershed moment in American automotive history. If the car doesn't appear in 2010 or soon after, beware the backlash. GM must realize this opportunity to atone for the public relations disaster depicted in the movie, "Who Killed the Electric Car." If the, "in two more years," ploy is dusted off again, no matter the reason, people will loose what little faith they have left.
Plug-in hybrid gas-electric cars and trucks, like Volt, will not solve all the problems caused by internal combustion engines. In fact, the complex machines suffer the liabilities gas powered cars always had along with the problems of electric cars, including expensive batteries. Volt however, can help with foreign oil consumption and prepare the car market for all-electric vehicles. Volt also offers hope for General Motors. Hybrid technology can help the automotive giant meet new C.A.F.E. standards and almost certainly enable GM to dip into government coffers. Volt's opportunity won't last. Tesla delivers battery all-electric cars now. Chinese and some international companies have simple electric machines. Global competition makes it unlikely GM will be permitted to hide behind excuses any longer. Volt offers a chance to use marketing and engineering expertise to bolster a sagging international image. It might be a beginning.
Keywords: Plug-in, plug in, hybrid, hybrid technology, electric car, electric vehicle
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