A Car as Political Football

When I bought my Chevy Volt this month, I had no idea I was buying into politics. I just thought that given the escalating gas prices, my ever-predictable commute, tax/rebate incentives, and the gadgety nature of the car itself, an Electric Vehicle was a reasonable choice for a bleeding-edge tech guy such as me.

But no, apparently I am an idiot, an intellectual elitist who wants to flaunt my enlightenment. I’ve bought into some sort of Obama-led government meddling with GM. Well, as a registered Republican I can say this without partisan bias: sometimes a car is just a car, “going green” is not just for hippie tree-huggers, and given that the Volt actually pre-dates Obama, the Obama-hating conservatives with questionable logic skills should just STFU!

Their logic flaw is in acting as if tax incentives are a uniquely Democratic foible, and then trying to capitalize on the poorly done Reuters math to prove that a government-assisted GM is a catastrophe. But the numbers are wrong, spreading out EV R&D costs across the 12,000+ Volts sold rather than over the life of the entire project. And this current e-incarnation – no matter how successful – will surely provide Chevrolet with additional insights for future EV products. Any R&D dollars spent now will undoubtedly prove useful on future models. So don’t believe the claims that Chevy is losing unfathomable wads of cash on each car sold. If they were, GM wouldn’t be building them (bailout or not).

There is no subversive Democrat-led conspiracy at play here. And to wish ill on GM because of this endeavor is both anti-American and anti-capitalist, which is ironic given that these right-wing nut jobs consider themselves as the ultimate flag-waving protectors of capitalism. Toyota took a leap with the Prius, and 10 years later I’d say it worked out pretty well for them. Why shouldn’t an American manufacturer go for a little outside-the-box innovation?

Demand may not be as great as GM had desired, but hopefully the customer satisfaction numbers and industry accolades will sway people to reconsider EVs as something more than souped-up golf carts on the freeway. Despite what the naysayers would have you believe, the Volt is actually the best selling EV on the market.

And I’ve never been as enthusiastic about a car.

Going Green

Sure, the Volt might be considered pricey at 40-some thousand dollars. Certainly not more than your typical Mercedes or Beemer, but maybe for a “commuter car” it is? Once I get my rebates back, the total $32k cost will be more inline with a similarly-equipped Honda Accord or Ford Focus, but I guess that is irrelevant to the critics. And how about the fact that I have driven almost 1000 miles so far and have yet to refill the gas tank?

I used to average more than $400 per month at the pump, but no longer. Sure, I have to charge it up every night – but I expect it to be less than $120/mo even at max power and SDG&E top-tier rates. If I had gone with a 40+ MPG car, my $400 on gas would become $200, but $120 on electricity is still better even with a once-a-month $50 fill-up factored in. And here in sunny San Diego, if only there was a way to generate the additional kWhr per month needed as renewable energy…

Detractors claim that the Volt is over-engineered, and that may be true. All I can say to that is “And that’s a bad thing?”. To critics, over-engineered means wastefully built. But to an engineer, over-engineered means well thought out, carefully constructed for all extreme contingencies, and absolutely no corners cut.

Design Quality

After my car accident, I tried a number of different rentals. I liked many of them, and even considered a couple for my short-list when ready to buy the replacement for my totaled truck. But as much as I liked a few, they all had strange design choices that ultimately irked me. Some did not use real glass in their side-view mirrors and had a strange fun-house visual effect. Seats had their lugs and rails unattractively exposed, and door handles were clumsily done. Radio controls were indistinguishable from the climate control system, and Ford SYNC in particular was a UI abomination. Those that featured LCD screens (often in strange places) suffered from information overload, with the temperature, telematics, and sometimes even the radio station shown on 3 different displays at the same time.

Is this what I am supposed to settle for? Is this what “properly engineered” is??

The Volt, in contrast, is meticulously put together. There are no stray wires, fun-house mirrors, or exposed bolts. Gauges are crisply and conventionally displayed on the dashboard, while telematic, climate, radio, and energy functions are clearly provided on a separate console computer display that has no confusing redundancy. The car handles responsively, the electric motor accelerates quickly, and the switchover to the gas-assist (when the batteries are out of juice) is nearly imperceptible.

If that’s over-engineered, then I say bring it on.

Driving an iPhone

I joke that driving the Volt is like driving an iPhone, and I think the analogy is apt. I’ve never heard anyone lay the “over-engineered” label on Apple. Over-priced is a common cry, but never over-engineered. Instead, there is an almost universal acknowledgement that there is a tremendous level of design quality and manufacturing detail put into Apple products. The same should be said of the Volt. The car has lots of little detailed touches that say that “over-engineered” means they thought of everything:

  • You can’t accidentally put the car in drive if the charger is plugged in, and it warns if the porthole is left open.
  • The Remote Keyless Entry RFID system is the substitute for a key in the ignition, but the car honks at you if you walk away without the fob.
  • The convenience outlets, formerly known as “cigarette lighters”, are only on when you are in the car or doors are open (tracking to the dome light behavior).
  • Climate control, defrosters, heated seats, headlights, and dimming rear-view mirror are all on automatic.
  • The AM/FM/XM/Pandora/iPod/Bluetooth stereo is easy to operate – including from the steering wheel controls – and is one of the best sounding that I have ever heard.

Interesting that my daily commute is 26mi but only “costs” me 20mi of electricity thanks to downhill coasting and regenerative braking. Can’t say that about a gas vehicle!

Some enthusiasts position the Volt as a car for early-adopters, but not one with gas savings to pay for the premium. I am a bit more optimistic, especially once I get home solar. Sometimes, “going green” is all about the green in your wallet, not some petrochemically-induced carbon footprint-averse environmental Obamagenda. Congrats to GM on a job well done.