Low Voltage

Hello, my name is Bart, and I’m a cynic. I’ve had this streak in me for a long time. Part of it is due to my Scandinavian mindset (prepare for the worst, and be mildly surprised when it doesn’t occur), part of it is due to my study of economics and politics, and the vast majority of it is due to being a fan of Minnesotan football teams. After you’ve been let down as often as I have, you tend to take other people’s claims and promises with a grain of salt.

There’s been a lot of blog posts over at Groovy Green concering GM’s unveiling of their new Volt concept car. Steve Balogh was invited to the unveiling event, and he’s posted several balanced notes concerning the event while taking a few days to let everything settle before posting a final verdict on the car. The comments on Steve’s posts have been in support of GM and their new car. It’s a bold move technically on GM’s part, but I can’t get that enthused about it.

The Volt looks sharp, and from the sounds of it uses a lot of cutting-edge technology in the battery power-only engine and utilizes advanced plastics to reduce the overall weight of the car to increase fuel economy. There are some open questions, though:

  • Does GM really expect battery technology to advance that much in 3 years when it’s been unable to make any quantum improvements over the last decade or more? There are improvements being made all the time, but I would wonder about how long the batteries would last. The cost to replace the battery would not be inconsequential I’d think.
  • Assuming GM does get the Volt out in 3-5 years’ time, they would start out as a very small percentage of the United States car fleet. How would a lightweight vehicle like the Volt stand up to a crash with a full-size SUV or truck, let alone a larger vehicle?
  • What kind of power would you get out of the engine? Horsepower and torque are still important selling points for a large segment of the car-buying public. How long would it take for the electric technology to mature to the point it could be used to power load-hauling vehicles versus small commuter or family cars?
  • What kind of price premium would such a car command, and therefore how economically viable would it be? Gasoline will still be relatively cheap in the next 5 years time assuming the world economy doesn’t go to hell due to a financial meltdown and/or regional war in the Middle East. Even if gas costs $5-7 USD per gallon, most Americans would pay it, and those that couldn’t probably won’t be in a position to buy an electric vehicle instead.

To me, the main thing the Volt unveiling brings is hope.

It brings hope to the automotive business that they can continue to crank out more cars and keep profits growing. More companies will embrace green products and solutions as they become more profitable. After getting their lunch fed to them by Toyota and Honda both in the hybrid market and in general, GM and the other Detroit automakers need to do something bold to try and maintain relevance. The Volt seems to be one possible tactic in this larger strategy, while at the same time GM is also pimping a new Chevy Camaro convertible. I would love to see all of the carmakers embrace new technologies that save energy and the environment; I just think that this is more of a survival mechanism that any form of social/environmental stewardship on the big threes’ part.

The Volt also brings hope for people that our current way of life can continue that much longer without us having to make the hard choices about how and where we choose to live. Oil getting too expensive? Who cares! Just get into a battery-powered car and keep on consuming! I realize that we will need to depend on automotive transportation for a long time to come no matter what. I’m just disappointed that more communities aren’t looking more at mass transit and zoning solutions to the problems posed by suburban development. This appears to me to be another plug-and-play solution from big business, where we simply replace our gas-powered cars for electricity-powered ones, kicking the larger problems posed by our current living arrangements farther down the line where they will only continue to exacerbate.

There’s been a lot of positive vibes put out due to GM’s announcement about the Volt. I’m embracing my glass-half-empty side, though, and don’t share a whole lot of excitement about it. Yes, it’s a technical marvel even if all of the bugs aren’t ironed out yet. It still represents a way to keep the globalized corporate/capitalistic way of life going, and has little to do with moving to a more sustainable way of life. It’s not like we should count on big business to have anything beyond their own self-interest in mind anyway, since that’s the nature of the corporate beast.

This isn’t a popular viewpoint, I’m sure. I’ve donned my flame-proof suit. Discuss, debate and rip away.

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6 Responses to Low Voltage

  1. Liz says:

    I have different reasons, but I’m not feeling the Volt Love either. What I don’t like is the “feel good that you’re so eco because you’re driving an electric car” vibe without mentioning that much of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

    So which is it? Clean eco car, or dirty coal-powered car?

  2. Not sure about the rest of your readership, but I’m far more likely to agree with your line of reasoning than to flame it. It’s yet another example of the pervasive inside-the-car-box thinking that’s led us to our current predicament.

    If you haven’t already, you should check out Sharon Astyk’s Ethics of Biofuels over at Energy Bulletin. It might not seem directly relevant, but it seems to me that the first ethic she proposes could just as easily be applied to electric vehicles as it could to biofuels:
    Biofuels cannot and must not be a strategy for maintaining the present situation.
    Neither biofuels nor electric vehicles in and of themselves address the continuing urban design mess or our determination to treat the planet as a treasure trove to be plundered relentlessly.

  3. Bart says:

    Thanks for the comments. Considering the generally positive comments on Steve’s blog entries at GG, I was expecting some of those same people to follow the pingback here and get on my case for spreading some negativity…

    One of the things I’m seeing is that it’s possible to be ‘green’ without being ‘sustainable.’ As Liz notes, if you fly to ‘eco-vacations’ all over the world, drive a Prius, and have a massive PV array to power your high-tech home, you may very well be living the ‘green’ lifestyle, but at the core you’re still buying into the standard, mass-consumption way of life, and you’re still utterly dependent on the system.

  4. Keith says:

    One has to take a step back and look at the overall picture to decide what’s “green” and what’s not. When I did that exact thing, I came to the conclusion that the automobile in its current form cannot ever be considered green. Not if it runs on gasoline. Not if it runs on bio-fuels. Not if it runs on electricity. Not even if it is a magical car that runs forever on nothing. The bottom line is:

    The manufacture of the vehicle (mining the raw materials, refining them, shaping them, putting them together) and the infrastructure required to support the automobile (roads and parking spaces) creates much more environmental damage than whatever you use to fuel the car.

    Eject the car. If you need to get somewhere, walk. If you need to get somewhere farther, bike. If you need to get somewhere overseas, sail.

  5. Bart says:

    I’m still noodling this over, but I’m leaning towards thinking that anything that’s advertised as ‘green’ is something that makes some concessions towards energy conservation but is still firmly in our current paradigm of mass consumption. You’re considered ‘green’ when you keep buying all the trappings of modern life, and you’re considered ‘sustainable’ when you don’t.

    Moving to the country and taking up the life of an organic farmer usually isn’t referred to as ‘green,’ but buying a hybrid car to drive down to the local coffee shop to grab a fair-trade latte is.

    Most of us will be car-free eventually due to simple economics. In the meantime, many people (including myself, admittedly) will need to keep on using them until popular opinion shifts enough to start mandating more funding for mass transit, and to start changing zoning laws so that the suburban areas can have mixed-development infrastructure like the cities enjoy. I’m doing what I can to limit my driving, but I’m enough of a realist to know that in my current situation, chucking the car isn’t something I’ll be doing anytime soon. So, I’m not sustainable, but I’m not going to bend over backwards to try and portray myself as ‘green’ either since on many levels that seems like fraud.

  6. […] I’ve written about before, I’m not a real big booster of the Volt. It’s an interesting concept, but it has a lot of limitations (40 miles per charge being the […]

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