This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Winners & Losers VII
Sometimes a project fails even though the technology it pioneers is destined to conquer the world. Take Babbage’s steam-era computer, Pioneer Electronics’ LaserDisc home video system, or Apple’s Newton—technically brilliant, yet business failures all.
Better yet, take General Motors’ Chevrolet Volt, a car known as a plug-in hybrid because it will get most of its power from the wall socket in a garage. The Volt is bold, cool, and technically feasible. It appeals to early adopters, and it’s catnip for the automotive fan mags. To cap it off, a little creative accounting gives it the sheen of sky-high mileage, the better to offset GM’s gas-guzzlers and thus meet future fuel efficiency targets.
GM, stung by the failure of its EV1 all-electric car of yesteryear, has put its considerable corporate muscle into the Volt, building the car into a game-changing breakthrough. But to succeed on those terms, it’ll have to become a mass-market car—anything less wouldn’t make enough of a difference to a company that, even in its postbankrupt state, still remains the second-biggest automaker in the world. And at a projected price of US $40 000, cosmic success just isn’t going to happen.
”We need to pursue any reasonable approach to wean the United States from its addiction to oil. If the Volt is not a commercial success, maybe its successor will be.”—Kenneth R. Foster
”Lithium-ion batteries degrade substantially in just a few years. Owners will face decreasing range and, ultimately, the need to replace and recycle the car’s giant, expensive battery.”—Nick Tredennick
”The first year’s volume, by GM’s own calculations, is 10 000 units, and you can’t save a company with that. That’s chicken feed. You’d need a vehicle that sells 400 000 units,” says John Wolkonowicz, an auto industry analyst at IHS Global Insight, in Lexington, Mass.
”There are not enough idiots who will buy it,” Johan de Nysschen, the president of Audi of America, told auto blogger Lawrence Ulrich.
The idea behind the Volt is wonderful. The car doesn’t have to trade off power between motor and engine from second to second according to some exquisitely complicated mechanism or scheme. Instead, the Volt makes electricity the main course. Today’s hybrids put the motor and engine in parallel so that they juggle their power contributions to the wheels according to many different parameters, including speed, battery charge, and the load on the engine. But the Volt links the power plants in series. That way the motor powers the wheels, and the engine merely engages, when needed, to recharge the vehicle’s enormous lithium-ion battery. How enormous? If you drive no more than 65 kilometers (about 40 miles) and have an electric socket handy at both ends of your commute, you won’t burn a drop of gasoline.
Plenty of tech-minded people love the concept, hence the aftermarket for conversions of standard-issue hybrids to plug-ins (see ”Plugging Away in a Prius,” IEEE Spectrum, May 2008). But these are unusual folk: They don’t mind buying a standard hybrid for $25 000 and throwing in $30 000 to make it into something else. These are the people who tile their roofs with photovoltaic cells, harvest the energy they expend on their StairMasters, or live underground in hobbit holes to conserve heat. We love these people—they make up a significant portion of our readership—but they have little in common with the typical auto buyer, who is mainly concerned with overall costs.
In a study published recently in the journal Energy Policy, four engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, found that the Volt won’t save enough on gas to cover the higher purchasing cost. They assumed that the plug-in would achieve 50 miles per gallon (4.7 liters per 100 kilometers) when operating on gasoline and asked how much more mileage you could eke out by adding enough batteries to enable the vehicle to get most of its power from the grid.