Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 January 2009

Lack of Imagination III: Selling Engineering, for a Change


Engineering
Driving Experience
Economy (that doesn’t depend on the price of oil)
Maintenance
Conclusion

This is the third in a series of posts discussing how our opinion makers have shown all the vision and imagination of moles.

The first one analyzed small, remotely piloted aircraft for military and intelligence applications. The second discussed the importance of preserving and completing the Chevy Volt project, whatever may happen to GM.

This one—in honor of the Detroit Auto Show—discusses why marketing the Chevy Volt won’t be nearly as hard as cynical auto industry reporters think. The Chevy Volt won’t just be a new car. It will be a new form of transportation with an entirely different driving and owning experience. Any marketer who couldn’t sell it would have to be brain dead.

Engineering

The first thing to realize about the Volt is that it’s cool. It’s not cool just because it’s far more efficient than any other car on the road and will rapidly cure our addiction to foreign oil. It’s more efficient and will help cut use of foreign oil because it’s cool.

Why is it cool? It’s the first real advance in the auto industry in over 100 years. There were some slow, stately electric cars early in the last century, but they had nothing like the batteries or high-power solid-state electronics of today. So the internal combustion engine and the promise of cheap oil eclipsed them.

The Volt’s technology is the product of a century of advances in physics, chemistry, electronics, and manufacturing. The folks who made the last century’s electric cars could no more have made the Volt than Orville and Wilbur Wright could have made a 747. Among many other reasons, the Volt is cool because it exploits the huge difference between the weight of lead and lithium, the third lightest element in the periodic table.

Many drivers’ eyes glaze over at these facts. But to people who know something about science and engineering, they are exciting.

And believe it or not, there are still people in our financialized nation who fit that description. We call them “early adopters.” They are the folks who drove the computer industry by buying laptops when they cost $3,500 and iPods when they cost well over $300.

Their education and technical talent allows them to make some money, and they like to spend it on new, cool things. They will buy a Volt even if it costs $40,000 (initially) just to be the first one on their block to own one. They are the Volt’s primary target market for 2010-2011.

Driving Experience

The mainstream media still haven’t internalized the implications of an electric car. That’s what the Volt is. It does have a small gasoline engine to extend its 40-mile battery range. But the people, like me, who will buy one as soon as it’s available will do so because it’s really an electric car.

And that’s a whole new animal. How? Let me count the ways.

First, it creates no exhaust and no pollution. None of the many dire warnings about running your car in your garage apply to it. Your garage won’t kill you with carbon monoxide poisoning even if you run a Volt inside it, with the door closed, all day.

If you lack power tools, you could put the Volt up on jacks, run it electrically, attach a saw blade or grinder to an axle, and go to work. I wouldn’t be surprised if the car creates an accessories aftermarket for that purpose.

Second, the Volt running as an electric car is quiet. It doesn’t make much more noise than a bicycle, especially on the getaway. Lovers will use it for trysts, to sneak away from their sleeping spouses. Teenagers will want one for their first car, so they can sneak away while their parents are sleeping. Police will want some for stakeouts and other missions requiring stealth. The only downside is that drivers—and especially pedestrians—will have to train themselves to rely on their eyes more than their ears to avoid disaster.

But the third point is the clincher. If you run the Volt as an electric car, you won’t ever have to go to a gas station again. You can simply plug it in overnight in your garage and be ready to go to work or the store again in the morning.

That means a lot if you live far from a gas station or winter in a cold climate. Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your feet by the fire than out in the cold, pumping gas, maybe in a not-so-nice neighborhood? And think of the convenience when you have a cold or the flu.

Economy (that doesn’t depend on the price of oil)

The Volt will be incredibly cheap to run. Even with gas at less than $2 per gallon, it will beat gas cars hands down. And oil prices won’t stay low for long, regardless of what happens to the American economy.

The magic number is five: five miles per kilowatt hour. That’s the Volt’s design parameter. Apparently it’s near an industry norm. Ford has announced a similar car for 2012, advertising a range of 100 miles with a 23 kilowatt-hour battery. That works out to 4.3 miles per kilowatt hour.

To calculate your cost of running a Volt, just get your latest electric bill and divide your cost per kilowatt-hour by five.

My cost per kilowatt hour is about 7 cents. So my cost of running a Volt would be 1.4 cents per mile. In order to get the same economy from a car burning gas, even at a mere $1.40 per gallon, I’d have to get 100 miles per gallon. Maybe that’s why the EPA is expected to give the Volt a 100 MPG [now 230 MPG] certification.

Maintenance

The Volt’s economy doesn’t stop with the absence of fuel. When it runs as an electric car, its only moving parts (besides the brakes and steering) are the axles, their bearings and the magnets that make up the motors, which serve as generators when the car is slowing down. No pistons move, no rings, no valves, no timing chain, no distributor, no fuel injector, no crankshaft, no oil pump, no water pump, no radiator, no water coolant, and no engine temperature gauge. There’s not much to go wrong because the electronic controls are all high-power solid state. Have you ever seen an electronic calculator wear out?

The batteries may create some problems in the early years. But GM will no doubt make it easy to swap out failing batteries. Drive up to your friendly dealer, put the car up on a rack, pop a few screws, and replace the entire battery pack. The whole process will probably take twenty minutes, thirty max. Try overhauling or replacing a gasoline engine in that time.

The reliability and convenience of electric cars will leave their gas-driven rivals in the dust. The real danger will be exacerbating unemployment by putting legions of mechanics out of work. Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, also may have to find a source of comedy other than the foibles of cantankerous cars.

Conclusion

Maybe executives in car companies understand these points. Most of them have some acquaintance with engineering. They know how superior—in every way—electric motors and electronic technology are to combustion, gears and crankshafts.

Today’s cars are the old wind-up alarm clocks with the mechanical bell on the top. In comparison, the Volt will be a digital watch. Maybe that’s why virtually every major car manufacturer, from Toyota, to Ford to an obscure Chinese company, announced an electric car at this year’s auto show.

Anyway, it shouldn’t take marketers much imagination to sell all these attractive features. Any salesman or saleswoman who can’t do that ought to find another line of work.

Car companies have to invest a lot of money to convert from the last century’s technology to the twenty-first century’s. But there’s not really much risk. Millions of cell phones, iPods and laptops are running on lithium ion batteries right now. You might be reading this post on lithium power.

The question is not whether it can be done. It can and it will. The question is not whether people will buy the Volt. I will and so will many others. The question is whether we Americans will squander GM’s rare one-year lead over the rest of the industry and end up buying the latest technology—in the world’s most basic industry—from the Japanese and Koreans again.


Update (8/11/09): Today the Wall Street Journal reported that the EPA’s new certification protocols for hybrids are expected to give the Volt a 230 MPG rating. At the same time, the EPA is expected to certify the cost of moving a Volt at less than 3 cents per mile for trips of 100 or fewer miles. Apparently the EPA has revised its protocols to properly reflect the extraordinary efficiency and economy of hybrids (like the Volt) capable of operating in fully electric mode.

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