April 26, 2011

An Explosive Automotive Debut

As regular readers know, I have been writing on the Chevy Volt for some time. Site search under ďChevy VoltĒ if youíre interested in reading my previous scribblings. Iíve been accused of being a modern Luddite, but in truth, I have nothing at all against electric or hybrid vehicles, unless my taxes are building and subsidizing them, as is the case with General Motors. Any private corporation that wants to build such vehicles (Nissan with their Leaf, for example), to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket. That said, it is one of the missions of CY to expose foolishness and waste, particularly where government is involved. But before I continue, visit here for an explosive tale of the Volt in the real world. More on that later.

The Chevy Volt is, for those requiring a quick review, a soap opera parody of government inefficiency. Itís a brilliant, pseudo-advanced technology solution to a problem that doesnít exist. A $41,000 dollar MSRP (Manufacturerís Suggested Retail Price) compact car selling for as much as $65,000, the Volt will travel in the real world only about 25 miles on a single charge, after which its weak gasoline engine--which requires premium fuel--takes over, providing no better mileage than a great many conventional vehicles.

And speaking of soap opera parodies, at the 2011 New York Auto Show, the Volt was named the 2011 ďWorld Green Car.Ē Beating out the Volt for 2011 ďWorld Car Of The YearĒ honors was the Nissan Leaf, a truly all-electric, let the juice run out and you have a wheeled weight set, car. Apparently some 66 ďjurorsĒ make such decisions. All of this just goes to show you that, as Lilly Tomlin said, no matter how cynical you get, itís impossible to keep up.

Chevy originally billed the vehicle as a sort of super-electric car with a 50 mile range, and claimed that the wheels would never be driven by anything as crude as the onboard gasoline engine, which would only be used to generate electrical power--though this process was never clearly explained--to somehow propel the vehicle electrically. As early Volts were allowed out for independent tests, Chevy had to admit that the Volt is really nothing more than a needlessly complex hybrid, but a hybrid costing a great deal more than other hybrids on the market. When the charge level drops too low, the gasoline engine does indeed directly drive the wheels, as it was designed to do from the very beginning. In other words, Chevy was engaging in what the common folk often refer to as ďlying.Ē Chevy also revised its all-electric mileage figure down to 40 miles, but neglected to mention that was the high end, under-ideal-conditions only estimate.

Current owners and longer-term testers are discovering that in the real world, where drivers do blatantly extravagant things like carry passengers and cargo, use lights, air conditioning, turn signals, the radio and frivolous accessories like that, all-electric range is much closer to 25 miles. Another major problem that Chevy has glossed over is the indisputable fact that batteries, even enormous, expensive (somewhere either side of $8000) hi-tech batteries like that of the Volt, lose power and capacity in cold climates. If itís cold enough, and substantial portions of the US are at least part of the year, batteries are rendered virtually useless. Standard car batteries are not a good comparison because they need retain only enough charge to spin a starter motor while the Voltís battery must propel a multi-thousand pound vehicle and everyone and everything in it down the road. In the cold, all-electric range dips below 25 miles, often far below, and it is the promise of cheap electrically driven miles that provides the hopelessly optimistic combined mileage figures that Chevy and the EPA have trumpeted. Even with an all-electric range of 40 miles, the Volt is still nothing to write home about, particularly when the purchase price is considered, but more about that later too.

But this is not the only cold weather problem. Owner reports indicate that the Voltís cabin heater is quite weak. Considering that electric heaters draw considerable current, this is hardly surprising--the Volt uses a specially developed low-current draw Bose stereo system--but again, Chevy, like the Government, tends not to trumpet its bugs unless it is calling them features.

The potentially worst part of the Volt is the battery itself. Lithium-ion batteries contain chemicals that, if allowed to combine through even a pinhole, have the distressing tendency to violently burst into flame. A quick visit to Google will provide a great many articles and entertaining videos of lithium-ion battery fires and explosions(!). In addition, to develop enough power to propel the Volt, its battery contains substantial electrical power, more than enough to seriously injure or kill unwary paramedics or mechanics who do not have the knowledge and proper safety equipment and tools to deal with a wounded Volt.

The link at the beginning of this article tells the sad story of a Volt immolating itself. In Barkhamsted, Connecticut, Storm and Dee Connors were awakened by a smoke alarm one recent morning at 0400. Firefighters put out the blaze and a firewall between the house and garage saved the Connorsí home. The insurance company and state fire marshalls believe that the Volt was responsible for the blaze. A few days later, the fire department had to return; the Volt had again caught fire, apparently in its battery.
At the moment, whatís know is that Connors had another electric vehicle, a self-converted Suzuki Samurai, in the garage with the Volt, and both were charging. Apparently the Samurai had been operated for some two years without difficulties until the arrival of the Volt. GM personnel have examined the Volt and their initial statements suggest--not surprisingly--that the Volt was not to blame, but local fire officials have yet to make a final pronouncement on the cause.

Is this absolute proof that Volts are going to regularly spontaneously combust? Certainly not, and the investigation into the cause of both fires is ongoing. However, understanding the technology of the Voltís battery, it is entirely possible that the Volt is the cause. Itís not known if the Connors had the optional. $2000 dollar, 220V ďfastĒ charger installed in their garage. That charger cuts the 110V wall outlet charging from 10-12 hours down to 4-6 hours. Oh, Chevy didnít mention the cost of that charger in its promotional materials? Imagine that.

So what we have is a ridiculously expensive compact car with not-ready-for-prime-time technology, technology which may never work as it is intended, and with no identifiable market, being built by a taxpayer supported company that the government had to bail out of bankruptcy. But wait, thereís more! If you buy a Volt, the Federal government will give you a $7500 tax credit (there goes more of my money)! And the Feds are in the process of eliminating the bother of the tax credit; theyíre just going to have Chevy dealers hand out the cash at the point of sale. Isnít that nice?

So the Volt is a very expensive product in search of a market. But praise the Lord and pass the charging cable, there is a market after all! General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt has pledged that GE will buy somewhere between 12,000 and 50,000 Volts. By the way, Immelt is also one of Mr. Obamaís primary economic advisors, and GE also manufactures the charging stations that will have to crop up like crabgrass across the nation if electric vehicles are ever to be even remotely viable. And all of this marvelous technological advancement, gentle readers, is coming out of your pockets.

So call me anti-technology, call me anti-government, say Iím trying to kill children, women, the elderly, and adorable puppies and kittens, but at least admit that the Volt might not be the brightest idea an American auto company ever foisted on the public, and for many good reasons. Perhaps the best reason is the cost. Putting aside the high initial purchase price, itís almost impossible for the Volt to make fiscal sense by means of saving gas.

For most people, the MSRP of $41,000 places the Volt well out of consideration. To better understand why the Volt is priced out of any reasonable market, letís compare two vehicles designed with high mileage in mind, the Ford Fiesta, and of course, the Volt. A well-equipped Fiesta will retail for $20,000, and just to be as fair as possible, letís compare it with a Volt at the MSRP of $41,000. Subtract the government subsidy of $7500, but add the cost of a fast charger at $2000, and the difference between the two vehicles is $15,500. Itís reasonable to add in the fast charger cost as very few people will be satisfied with a 12 hour recharge time, and if you can afford the Volt in the first place, an extra couple of thousand likely wonít be an issue. Also notice that I have not added in the installation costs of the charger, which could run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

As it happens, I am the satisfied, proud owner of a Ford Fiesta (Dear Ford Motor Company: Please feel free to provide me with lifetime service and repair, free of charge. Iím in your database. Thank you.), which gets 31 MPG in everyday driving (40 highway). Please keep in mind that I was born without the math gene. I aced my college math courses on basic scholarship ability, but I do not look at equations and see the inherent beauty and wonder of the universe, so if I make any math mistakes, please, gentle readers, help me out. Just for ease of calculation, and to be as fair as possible to the Volt, letís assume that the Fiesta will get 30 MPG. Figure that each vehicle will travel 10,000 miles in a year, and that the cost of gas will be $3.80 per gallon. Why $3.80? Thatís about what it is as this is being written, and again, thatís fair to the Volt. As fuel costs rise, things do not get better for Chevy, as youíll see.

So, 10,000 miles divided by 30 MPG equals 333 gallons of gas, times $3.80, and the fuel cost for driving that distance in a year for the Fiesta is $1265. To be ridiculously fair to the Volt, letís assume that itís combined electric/premium gasoline range yields the equivalent of 90 MPG, three times that of the Fiesta. So 10,000 miles divided by 90 MPG equals 111 gallons, times $3.80, and the fuel cost for the Volt is $422. Subtract $422 from $1265 and the Volt saves $843 per year in fuel compared to the the Fiesta! Pretty impressive, right? Maybe Ford had better hold off on that lifetime service and repair support.

Now letís see how long it will take the Volt driver to break even in terms of money saved in fuel costs. Remember that the up-front cost difference between the Ford and Chevy is $15,500. Divide that by $843, and it will take 18 years(?!) to break even. Just to be ridiculously fair to the Volt, letís assume that it gets 120 MPG, four times better mileage than the Ford. By that calculation, the Voltís per year fuel cost is a miserly $315, a $950 per year savings, but again, that $15,500 difference is pretty stubborn, and it would still take 16 years to break even. Remember, thatís to break even, not to save a single penny on fuel. Just for fun, letís give the Volt a combined MPG figure of 200 MPG. It would still take 14 years to break even.

Keep in mind that Iím not considering the cost of electricity which would only make the Volt more expensive to operate and add time to the break-even period. And of course, itís not possible to calculate such things as pride of ownership or whatever reduction in overall emissions a Volt might provide, even if we ignore that extra pollution produced by the power plants making the electricity that will drive the Volt, the pollution caused by the manufacturing process, the dangerous chemicals in the Voltís lithium-ion battery making special, expensive disposal procedures necessary, etc.

One of the biggest problems in making such calculations is there is no practical experience with a vehicle like the Volt. We have no real idea how to calculate a reasonably accurate MPG equivalency, rendering the EPAís window sticker unicorn horns and fairy dust. Electricity and fuel prices vary over time, which makes things even more difficult, and because its gas engine requires premium fuel, driving the Volt with that engine is, mile for mile, more expensive. Even if an owner is careful to never drive the Volt with gas power, that presents its own set of problems such as deteriorating gasoline and corrosion of parts and seals, and very few people could afford such an inflexible vehicle, particularly if they could not afford a second, conventional vehicle to make up for the obvious shortcomings of the Volt. But as you can see, even with figures that in every way favor the Volt, it makes no fiscal sense for most people, but thatís not the only related problem.

Relatively few people keep a car for even ten years. Letís assume that our Volt owner trades his Volt for a new car after eight years. At that point, even if we assume that the dealer will price the Volt to sell as a conventional used vehicle that is eight years old, rather than a high-priced curiosity, the Voltís battery will be nearing or at the end of its life. Who is going to buy a used Volt when theyíll likely have to pay more to replace its battery any day than they paid to buy the entire car? Chevy is claiming that Volt batteries will last a decade and cost only about $8000 to replace, but any battery wears out more quickly with more frequent charge/discharge cycles, so in effect, the more you use the all-electric capability of the Volt, the more quickly youíll need to replace its very expensive battery. Even as a used car, the Volt has unique, insurmountable problems.

But ah, you say, a Volt will never travel 10,000 miles in a year! Itís not designed for that. You may very well be correct, but if so, youíre admitting that the Volt is not a practical car, a car capable of anything from commuting to work, taking a short trip, to driving across the nation on the spur of the moment. If itís not capable of all of this, it truly is nothing more than a political exercise, and/or a novelty car for those who can afford its hefty price tag and lack of daily practicality while still maintaining a sufficient number of conventional vehicles for the real business of daily driving.

Any bets as to how long the Volt production line will operate if Mr. Obama loses the White House in 2012? Theyíll probably have to open Yucca Mountain after all. Not to store nuclear waste, but to store expended Volt batteries, which have the very real potential to, over time, deteriorate, catch fire and even explode. That sort of thing just might pick your pocket or break your leg.

Posted by MikeM at April 26, 2011 11:01 PM

In fact, you'd be hard pressed even to put 10,000 miles a year on a Volt. Twenty-five miles per day (which assumes you'll run the car to a stand-still and recharge once a day)times 365 days is a little over 9,000 miles a year.

It's also interesting to amortize the price of the car over its (presumed) useful life: $40,000 divided by 8 yrs = $5,000/year. Even if you never buy gas and somehow manage to get free electricity, it's going to cost you almost a dollar a mile just to drive around. Most people would be better off calling a cab whenever they need to run a few errands.

Posted by: jt at April 27, 2011 02:17 PM

The ridiculous thing is that it's not even a great option.

Honda just put out a gasoline Civic for 2012 that gets 41mpg.

Just a simple car.

Ford already makes deisel cars in Europe (that they can't sell here) that get over 60mpg.

The Volt and Leaf are kind of dumb cars built for the Greens. There are better cars out there.

Posted by: muckdog at April 27, 2011 09:42 PM