Back in November I saw the documentary Who killed the electric car? and I remember being less than impressed, as my comments at the time confirm:
The movie could have been better. It felt like an extended commercial, and the people involved seemed like fanatical environmentalists. Oh, and when they realized they couldn’t answer the question properly, they just blamed everyone.
Essentially the filmmakers didn’t present a very strong case for why, exactly, electric cars should rule the roads. They seemed ticked at GM more than anything. According to a post over at Engadget today, GM is dabbling in electric cars once again, this time with the Chevy Volt:
Those of you as taken with GM’s Chevy Volt concept vehicle as we are may want to take a minute to reconsider any impending car purchases, as the car is now officially headed into production — in two different versions no less. According to Autoblog, that could put the car on track for a roll out in 2010, although GM isn’t quite ready to get that specific.
Apparently there will be a plug-in gasoline model, and a fuel cell model (though the latter will be too expensive for mass production). The plug-in model should deliver a gasoline savings of 500 gallons per year on average.
Do we really want plug-in automobiles though? Sure they result in some gasoline (and emissions) savings from the cars themselves, but what about on balance? Over 70% of the electricity generated in the United States comes from fossil fuels. With that in mind, plugging a car in is a lot like filling it with gas. The environment doesn’t really benefit. It might have more of an impact in Canada, where just 28% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, but most of the Volts will be sold in the US.
Another thing to consider is the return on investment. GM claims they are willing to lose money on the Volt initially, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Besides, losing money on something doesn’t mean it’s cheap – just look at the PlayStation 3. Consumers will ask this question: will the price premium of the Volt be recouped in gasoline savings before the car is discarded? In most cases, I bet the answer will be no.
The last thing I’ll mention here is technology. New car technologies will not rule the industry for decades like the combustion engine has. What happens if someone perfects the fuel cell a few years after the Volt is produced? So long Chevy Volt, that’s what. This is another big reason that cars like the Volt need to be inexpensive. Otherwise, justifying their purchase is difficult at best.
I’m not sure plug-in cars like the Chevy Volt are a good thing at all. In the best case scenario, consumers love them, GM sells a lot of them, they last for more than ten years, and they really do have a positive impact on the environment. I think that’s really unlikely though. The more probable scenario is that only GM wins by charging a premium for the Volt. Consumers pay more to get a car with a short lifespan, and little to no positive effect on the environment.