How will electric cars change our lives? Join us as we take a road trip in a Chevy Volt — and share your thoughts about the plug-in driving experience.
Media producer Jim Seida and I will take turns behind the wheel of a Volt on Monday and Tuesday for the 800-mile drive between Seattle and San Francisco, on the first leg of Chevrolet's "Volt Unplugged" tour around the nation. Along the way, we're going to be sending updates, photos and video about the real-world driving experience.
"It's probably more fun to drive than any vehicle," Volt spokesman Rob Peterson told me today. "It's very quiet, it's very smooth."
Of course, Peterson would say that. But Dan Carney, who reviewed the performance of a Volt prototype for msnbc.com back in February, also had some nice things to say about the car. "Anyone can get in the Volt and drive," he said.
Carney put the Volt through its paces on a race track, in a tryout that emphasized the Volt's all-electric performance. In contrast, when Seida and I are driving, the Volt's gasoline-powered generator will be working most of the time.
Until recently, Chevrolet said the Volt should be able to stay in all-electric mode for the first 40 miles of travel — a range that covers most of the trips the typical driver makes in the course of a day. Now those figures have been revised to a 25- to 50-mile all-electric range, depending on driving conditions and driver behavior. Once the battery runs down, the generator kicks in to send juice to the drive train, extending the car's range for another 300 miles.
Peterson said the revised claims for all-electric driving are the result of "learnings" that Chevy engineers have made during more than a million miles' worth of test drives. "What you come to learn is that the electric vehicle's range has some variability. ... If you come out and you want to go 100 miles per hour, in any vehicle you are going to have lower efficiency," he explained.
Drivers quickly learn how to tweak their own driving habits, as well as the controls on the car. For example, you can set the heater and air conditioner for high-efficiency settings, or switch into a "low gear" that lets the regenerative-braking system recover more energy for the batteries. We'll be trying out all those gadgets on Monday and Tuesday, and we're going to try out some "hypermiling" techniques to maximize our mileage. (32 mpg? 50 mpg? 230 mpg? Who knows?)
We're curious about some of the nitty-gritty questions surrounding the Volt: It takes 10 hours to recharge the car fully from a standard electric outlet, and four hours if you use a special 240-volt charging station. How do you recharge the Volt on a long-distance trip? Is it worth trying to plug in the car while you're at a rest stop or a diner? At night, do you just run an extension cord out the motel window? What's the etiquette for asking someone you'd like to borrow a few kilowatt-hours of their electricity?
We'll also be thinking about the real-world issues behind all the flashy lights on the dashboard: Can the higher efficiency of electric cars really compensate for their higher cost? Are plug-in hybrids truly the answer to America's energy ills? Or was the National Research Council right when it reported that plug-in costs would outweigh the benefits for decades to come?
The Volt has a pretty steep sticker price — $41,000. Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 could ease the sting of that sticker shock, but because of the electric-plus-gasoline arrangement, the Volt won't be eligible for as many perks as the $32,780 all-electric Nissan Leaf will get. In July, one commentator slammed the Volt as "GM's Electric Lemon," citing its high cost and other factors ranging from leg room to its requirement for premium fuel. So how will the Volt fare in the marketplace?
Peterson says the Volt — which, like the Leaf, is supposed to start rolling out to dealerships in December — will offer an ideal near-term solution in the electric-vehicle market. He told me the car occupies the market's "sweet spot" because of its 300-mile-plus extended range, compared with the Leaf's advertised range of 100 miles.
"I recall the early meetings where the team identified the mission of the Volt," he said. "The primary objective ... was to have a nice-looking vehicle that could be an electric vehicle for the majority of drivers, but could also be anybody's everyday vehicle What we learned from the EV1 [the electric car that GM supposedly "killed"] was that we had the engineering to make a dynamite vehicle. But we also learned that if you restricted drivers' freedom to go anywhere they want to go, the best you could hope for is that it would be a second or third car."
Sounds like it's time for a reality check. On Monday and Tuesday, we'll be up close and personal with the Volt and the folks who helped create it. Feel free to send us the kinds of questions you would ask — either about the big issues or the car's nuts and bolts — and we'll try to get them answered.