I have an article in today’s Guardian online, “Is the Chevy Volt just hype?” I argue that the key to the near-term success for plug-ins in this country is government incentives and mandates, which in turn will critically depend on the outcome of the presidential election. But that should not be a surprise, since no country in the world has achieved significant market penetration of an alternative-fuel vehicle without major government incentives and mandates.
I noted that one alternative fuel vehicle expert told me that GM has “already sunk at least $1 billion into the Volt and cannot reasonably expect a profit from a $45,000 new car in an economy which is imploding. The actual cost of the vehicle may be higher.” And that leads to two key, related points:
If this country doesn’t strongly embrace plug-ins, Europe may well become the leader. After all, gas prices are considerably higher in Europe, which means plug-ins will provide consumers there far larger fuel cost savings. Also, Europeans drive about half as much as Americans, so they may be able to avoid gas consumption almost entirely with a well-designed plug-in, perhaps one with a smaller all-electric range.
And this leads directly to the question of whether of the Volt is overdesigned:
The vast majority of people commute much less than 40 miles a day. This is true in US and even more so in other countries. In addition, as plug-ins become popular, we will very quickly see electric outlets in parking garages, malls and the like, so people will be able to charge at home and then again at work or when shopping.
So I think a plug-in that goes closer to 20 miles all-electric before reverting to a gasoline hybrid makes much more sense, especially for initial market introduction where the cost of the vehicle still reflects the use of expensive batteries that have not come down in cost. Ultimately, economies of scale and improvements in manufacturing and technology will make the batteries and the whole electric drivetrain more affordable.
This is certainly a very complicated design question, involving trade-offs in the batteries involving the ability to deliver energy versus the ability to deliver power when needed — as well as trade-offs that automakers don’t fully control, such as how quickly companies make charging at work places accessible.
But I think one point is very crucial for designers to understand: It is so much cheaper per mile to run on electricity than gasoline — a factor of five cheaper or more at current gasoline prices — that the vast majority of drivers are going to want to go out of their way to keep their plug-ins charged up all the time, and that includes when their car is parked for eight hours at work.
Also, you can take a large bet that companies trying to brand themselves as green, like Google and Wal-Mart, will not only provide incentives for their employees to purchase plug-ins, but they will very quickly retrofit their parking facilities to provide easy charging — most likely using renewable energy at discounted prices.
You don’t want to design plug-ins to cover the full commute of all American commuters. Nor do you want to design it assuming there will be no charging at work. Since half of American cars travel under 25 miles a day, and batteries are simply so expensive right now, I tend to think 15 to 25 miles all-electric makes more sense for early models.