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Opinion: Volt Signals a New Attitude at GM

Chevrolet’s extended-range EV shows a change in culture for the automaker.

by on Oct.21, 2011

Chevrolet's Volt isn't just a new kind of car. It signals a culture change at General Motors.

Chevrolet’s Volt extended-range electric vehicle is a groundbreaking car, one that introduces an entirely new kind of drivetrain.

But here’s amazing fact: After nine months on the market, the Volt has not had a single recall. In an environment where automakers are quick to recall a vehicle for even the smallest problem, the Volt – with a completely new type of drivetrain – hasn’t had any significant problems.

“To date we haven’t experienced any recalls and the car has continuously exceeded most customers’ expectations,” a GM spokesman said.

A Cultural Phenomenon!

Maybe the most important facet of the Volt’s development is how it shows the internal changes inside GM. There was a time when GM would have rushed a promising new technology to market without taking the time to make sure it worked as intended.

Consider what was going on at General Motors during the Volt’s amazingly public gestation. While GM’s leadership and finance people were shepherding the company through a messy and complicated government-funded bankruptcy, GM’s engineers were figuring out how to turn a promising concept that they didn’t yet have a solution to build into a viable vehicle using parts – particularly the lithium-ion battery – that had not yet been tried on such a large scale.

Talk about pressure under extraordinary circumstances. GM’s engineers were facing it, all the while wondering if their paychecks might bounce and if their employer would survive long enough for their work to see the road.

Under those less-than-ideal circumstances, they hit a home run.

Most people understand what the Volt does by now, but here’s a refresher. The Volt can travel about 40 miles on a full charge. After the battery is depleted, a gas engine kicks in to give the Volt the freedom of any gasoline-powered car.

To make all this happen, those engineers developed a complex system with two electric motors, three clutches, a small gasoline engine, a planetary gearset and a 16 kilowatt/hour battery to power the car. It sounds a bit Rube Goldbergish, but it works.

A year ago, most of the regular car-buying public didn’t understand the Volt, even here in car-crazy Detroit. Many a non-car person said to me “Why would I pay $40,000 for a 40-mile electric car?” They didn’t understand the part about the gas engine that makes the Volt as useful as any other small car on the market.

Now, the most common question people have about the Volt is about what happens to the gasoline, since, in theory, the Volt can be driven without ever using a drop. The answer is like most of the unique aspects of this car: GM thought about that. To keep the gasoline from getting “stale,” the Volt monitors the age of the gasoline and will fire the engine to use that fuel after a few months.

Is there room for improvement? Sure, what new technology leaves the womb fully realized? GM is already at work improving the Volt’s efficiency and finding ways to reduce the price. They’re also working on other uses for what it calls Voltec such as a delivery van it’s developing in Europe and a Cadillac called the ELR that will be based on the striking 2009 Converj concept.

Click here to read about GM’s Voltec-powered delivery van, the Opel Vivaro e-Concept.

Click here to read about the Cadillac ELR.

The Volt is completely different than any other car ever been built. More importantly, it is also the end result of a massive culture change at General Motors.

GM has had a long history of developing new ideas. From the first vehicle airbag to the catalytic converter, GM’s engineers have contributed greatly to the automotive world.

But in the last 30 years, the giant automaker seemed to stumble one time after another. Remember the GM diesels of the late ‘70s? The General would rather you didn’t. V8-6-4? GM put variable displacement into production long before the current systems – run by powerful computers – from Honda, Chrysler and even GM made it work. How about when GM created its import-fighting brand, Saturn, and made the vehicles so good that it couldn’t make money selling them? To solve the problem, it dumbed them down, mixed the brand into the rest of the company and ultimately had to kill the whole experiment.

There was also the Pontiac Fiero. Originally, the only way the product planners could get the little sports car approved by GM’s conservative board was to pitch it as an economy car and cobble it together from the corporate parts bin. Engineers spent the Fiero’s entire lifecycle trying to get the car right – finally giving it more power and a decent suspension. And as soon as they got it right, GM killed it, partly because buyers got tired of waiting for the automaker to make it what it should have been from the beginning but also because the car was prone to engine fires.

But this isn’t a rant looking back on decades of GM failures. This is to celebrate a new GM, one that doesn’t seem intent on inflicting mortal wounds upon itself.

A week spent with the Volt did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for the car. It is and does exactly what GM promised it would. After about 25-45 miles of gasoline-free motoring, the Volt seamlessly transitions to gasoline power. Plug it in overnight and go another 25-45 miles the next day. The day’s events take you on a longer, unexpected trip? So long as there is gas in the tank, the Volt is ready.

Click here to read a review of the Volt by contributor Mike Davis.

The difference with this big idea from GM would seem to be that the automaker fully vetted the Volt, where so many of its previous great ideas were rushed to market.

General Motors created the Volt in the middle of the biggest crisis in the history of the company. With many obstacles in its path, it created a whole new type of vehicle, one that will help solve the country’s energy issues. The automaker gave us an inside look as it developed the car, told us what the car would do and when it would be ready, then delivered exactly what it said it would.

This is a time to celebrate a new GM, one that is ready to lead in an automotive world that needs it.

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2 Responses to “Opinion: Volt Signals a New Attitude at GM”

  1. LeeMisko says:

    No recalls is laudible but that is “absence of a negative.” Success is largely determined by market acceptability. Where is the volume? What is the real value/price relationship, especially after subsidies go away?

  2. Market success for the Volt goes far beyond whether it is a good car or not. A co-worker who owns one is already peeved that the Volt doesn’t look quite as good now that gas prices are down to $3.30 instead of the $3.70 he budgeted. Paying true value for our fuel would be a good start, but that’s another story.
    We live in such a hurry-up society, people want everything now. Bringing the price of the Volt down will take time. Economies of scale will help. Advances in technology could as well.
    But here’s the bottom line: The people who are thinking about becoming early adopters can feel comfortable buying one, knowing that, at least at this point, GM has delivered on what it promised.