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

10 September 2010

Why I’ll Buy a Volt II

[Leaf, Volt or Focus? For an important update on my decision, click here.]

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Why I’ll Buy a Volt.” In it, I pledged to buy one if the price is under $35,000. The actual retail price is still not clear, but it threatens to be well over $40,000.

That’s far more than I ever paid for a car, even after subtracting the government’s $7,500 incentive rebate. In fact, without the rebate it’s more than my wife and I together paid for the two Hyundais that we now own.

Much more important, the Volt has competition. The Nissan Leaf will be available in showrooms at about the same time, late this fall. It reportedly will sell for $32,780, as compared to the Volt’s over-$40,000 price. The Leaf’s electric-only range is longer―100 miles on a charge, as compared with the Volt’s 40. Built by Nissan-Renault, the Leaf will probably give GM’s Chevrolet division a run for the money on quality as well.

Unlike the Leaf, the Volt has an internal combustion engine, which charges the batteries when they get low. So it boasts a range of 600-700 miles, far greater than the electric-only Leaf’s. (Since the engine charges the batteries only, it runs at constant speed, requires no transmission or throttle, and therefore is far less complex and expensive than the engine in a conventional gasoline car.)

Others may delight in this feature of the Volt. It lets them match or exceed the range of most conventional gas cars. It therefore encourages people to buy a Volt as their sole car. But my family will keep at least one of our Hyundais for occasional long trips. So I won’t use the Volt’s long range much, if at all. I want an electric car and plan to run the Volt on electricity only.

So if I were buying on specifications and the maker’s reputation alone, I would probably buy the Leaf. It costs less and goes farther on a “tank” of electrons. The Volt’s “extra” internal combustion engine―which probably accounts for most of the price difference―will be surplus for me.

Both cars will be hard to get. No dealer in my states will sell either, so I’ll have to go to another state to pick one up, then drive it back, 100 or 40 miles per charge. The Volt is likely to be even harder to get than the Leaf, since GM reportedly plans to sell only hundreds the first year, while Nissan-Renault is gunning for about 15,000 sales.

So why do I still insist on buying the Volt? Am I a fanatic? Maybe. But I do have reasons. Here they are:

1. I want to support American manufacturing. It is no secret that our nation is in steep and maybe irreversible decline. There are many reasons, including the obsolescence of our governing document, which we still treat like fundamentalist scripture. But the most immediate practical reason is the outsourcing of manufacturing from our shores.

Tariffs and other forms of protectionism are not the answer. International trade is the greatest engine of global prosperity and world peace in human history. We don’t want to harm it―especially not as doing so was partly responsible for humanity’s greatest self-inflicted catastrophe so far.

But I’ve seen with my own eyes what national self-help can do. The economic miracle that is South Korea built a city (Seoul) that is among the world’s most modern and impressive. A principal reason, I think, is what I saw when I visited there in late 2005: a utopian boulevard with ten lanes of traffic—all filled with shiny new South-Korean cars.

I have no idea what measures caused that universal economic solidarity. But all those Koreans buying their own country’s products were impressive. For us Americans―or at least those of us who can still afford to so so―doing likewise is the only quick and risk-free way to break out of our current doldrums.

So I’m going to buy a Volt if GM will let me. I’ll implement my trade policy for one and vote for America’s future with my checkbook.

2. I want to reward the American company that started the whole thing off. For about forty years, I’ve been appalled at the lack of innovation and poor quality in the American auto industry. That lament is part of my first post, and I won’t belabor it here.

But all is not lost. The very stodgiest of our automakers, GM, was the first firm globally to announce a real electric car (with lithium batteries), and I think the first to approve production at board level. I’ve followed electric-car developments closely, and it seems to me that GM’s announcement started the whole worldwide electric-car craze off.

I admire innovation above almost all else in industry, and I want to reward the company that started the snowball rolling. The fact that it’s an American company that had been sleeping for nearly half a century only makes the admiration sweeter.

3. I still have affection for Chevy. As I wrote in my first post, I’ve never owned a new American car, although I’m now semi-retired.

But the first car I ever bought, albeit used, was a 1957 Chevy sedan. I bought it just at the end of my junior year in college, in 1964. It was big by current standards but well-proportioned and pleasing to the eye. It had marvelous cockpit visibility and, although seven years old, it ran like a watch. It had a three-speed standard shift, so it helped me perfect my manual shifting skills.

I loved that car so much that I spent much of the summer between my junior and senior years rebuilding its engine. Unfortunately, I neglected to replace the main bearings, which my tight new piston rings and reground valves apparently stressed. So the engine blew up on my way back to college, and I spent my senior years carless, learning appropriate lessons about doing jobs completely.

That was 46 years ago. I still remember with affection both the car and that long-gone era, when American manufacturing and design reigned supreme. Later this year (or maybe early next), when I drive down the road with that squished-cross Chevy logo, I will feel all the renewed pride of youth revisiting a reliable old friend. And I’ll be thinking about what might have been, if engineers—not MBAs, lawyers, and bankers—had continued running American industry.

Of course all the many other reasons for going electric will still be there. I’ll still pay less than a quarter (about 2 pennies) of what I pay per mile to drive one of our two thirty-miles-per-gallon Hyundais (about 9 cents at $2.75 per gallon). I won’t be vulnerable to future price shocks in oil. I’ll be able to “fill up” in my own garage at night, while I sleep. The electric motors and high-power solid-state electronics in my car will give me far less trouble than the Rube-Goldberg contraption that is a gasoline-powered car. I won’t produce any pollution in electric-only mode. I won’t make much more noise than a bicycle. And I won’t pollute our garage or our yard with noxious fumes or deadly, invisible carbon monoxide.

Best of all, when I drive electrically I won’t be sending a single penny to petro-states. So I won’t help deplete our collective national wealth to buy an evanescent commodity that helps finance Wahhabi madrassas and terrorist ideology. And if I can convince my homeowners’ association to install a windmill for our housing development, I won’t pay anything at all per mile to drive to town and back. The wind is free.

The Leaf, too, has all these general advantages. The competition will be fierce, the more so as Toyota, Ford and maybe even BMW enter the fray in 2012. But GM was first and got the ball rolling, and I’ll be proud to sport its Chevy logo for that. I only hope that GM and our infrastructure entrepreneurs don’t lose heart, so that our own engineers, technicians and other workers can partake of this next great global industry as producers, not just passive consumers.

Update (11/20/10 & 1/06/11)—Electric Cars: Volt, Leaf or Focus?
Nissan’s Ambitious Electric-Car Plans,
the Volt’s Obscure Multiple-Clutch Transmission,
and Ford’s Announcement of an All-Electric Focus

There are three important recent developments in electric cars, as follows:

1. Nissan-Renalt’s Public Commitment. On November 19, 2010, Carlos Ghosn (pronounced “Goan”), Nissan-Renault’s CEO, announced [details in video] his company’s medium-term plans. Over the next several years, it will add capacity—just in the United States alone—to produce 200,000 batteries per year and 150,000 electric cars. He did not say whether the excess batteries would serve as necessary spares, export items, or components for other applications, such as storing wind and solar power. Nor did he say whether the Leaf would be his firm’s only (or even primary) electric car. He viewed the added electric-car capacity as part of his company’s general commitment to “high technology, high value” products in mature automotive markets like the US, EU and Japan.

2. GM’s Not-So-Serial Hybrid. The second development is less recent. Since well before last October, there have been credible reports in the press that the Volt is not a “pure” serial hybrid, i.e., that its internal combustion engine (“ICE”) does not connect just to its generator, but also directly to the wheels. The reports suggest that this happens when the car goes over 70 miles per hour and/or when the battery reaches a certain state of discharge. They did not say whether the necessary clutches are activated mechanically or electronically, or whether the driver can delay or prevent their activation, thereby prolonging the car's use of electric-only power.

These reports, if true, are troubling for several reasons. First, the Volt may be hard to run as a purely electric car, even if the driver wants to do so. Second, avid “green” drivers might have difficulty determining how much the Volt reduces pollution, carbon footprints and dependence on foreign oil. Third, the added weight and complexity of a multi-clutch mechanical transmission may reduce the theoretical simplicity and reliability of electric-only drive. Finally, depending on how it works, the mechanical transmission could detract significantly from the ICE’s efficiency by abandoning an operating regime in which the ICE drives the generator only, at a single speed (in revolutions per minute) chosen for optimum efficiency of the ICE and generator together.

This feature is also depressing for another reason. GM’s reluctance to design a true serial hybrid may reflect its engineers’ or managers’ conservative mindset. As “car people” trained all their lives on ICEs, they may simply have been unprepared to commit fully to the auto industry’s future for short-haul people-moving. That sort of backward fixation would be most disturbing, for it would undervalue two chief advantages of electric motors—a flat torque curve and easy (and cheap!) adaptability to four-wheel drive with fully independent four-wheel suspension.

The Volt's official site is coy about this feature, describing it only as an “automatic” transmission. Perhaps part of the reason is patent protection. A patent application in GM's name has been published (on March 29, 2009), as our law now requires for any US application with foreign counterparts. It covers a design with up to three clutches, which can be “selectively” engaged “alone or in different combinations[.]” The three clutches provide “at least one forward electric only operating mode including a series mode, an output split mode, and at least one neutral mode including a purely neutral mode and a neutral battery charge mode.” The latter mode can disconnect the ICE from the wheels but allow the wheels to drive the generator when the car is braking or going downhill.

For me, this development dims the Volt’s luster considerably. I want the Volt as an electric car. Period. The ICE is a useful backup, but I’d prefer to use it only when the Volt’s short electric-only range proves inadequate. If I have to use the ICE regularly and have no control over its use, I might prefer to buy the Leaf. So I think GM should “come clean” about its secret, proprietary transmission and how it works, so that prospective customers can evaluate it and the EPA can make a reasonable determination of how it affects nominal gas mileage. Depending on its complexity, the multiple-clutch transmission might contribute significantly to the price differential between the Volt and the Leaf.

3. Ford’s Announcement of an All-Electric Focus. According to the New York Times, Ford will announce production plans for an all-electric version of its leading Focus compact on Friday, January 7, 2011 (tomorrow). Ford is late to the party, at least as compared to GM and Nissan-Renault. More important, its corporate commitment to the industry’s future is as suspect as GM’s. Its executives still don’t seem to understand that the era of the internal combustion engine is coming to a close. So I greet this announcement of an announcement with some skepticism.

Nevertheless, the Ford Focus (or was it a Fiesta?) that I vaguely remember driving in Italy some years ago was quite a car. If Ford has been able belatedly to introduce something like it into the US, there may be reason behind its leading the American industry in profitability and its not needing a government bailout.

* * *

These three developments have made me re-evaluate my decision to buy a Volt.

When I buy a car, I don’t buy just the car; I buy the company, too. I kept a Toyota Corolla for 25 years. Toyota maintained it and provided spare parts for that entire time—long past the ten years fixed by industry standards and Toyota’s own spare-parts guarantee.

Nowhere is that sort of corporate commitment to longevity and customer service more important than with electric cars. We are entering a new era, in which industry will phase out the internal combustion engine, at least for short-haul people-moving. Before I buy an electric car from any company, I need to know that its top executives and corporate culture understand the brave new world to come. If they don’t, the electric cars they sell may be just another set of casual loss leaders in a hucksterish society bent on marketing, not engineering or economic rationalism.

So far, neither GM nor Ford impresses in this regard. GM’s CEO Dan Akerson may be starting to get it. He reportedly told his top product managers “to plan for oil at $120 a barrel and gasoline at more than $4 a gallon[.]” Yet even that sudden economic insight doesn’t necessarily reflect an understanding of the limited longevity of internal combustion engines and the decisive engineering and economic advantages of electric cars. Only Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan-Renault, has yet made noises that seem to reflect that understanding, however dimly.

I would love to buy an electric car designed and made in America, so that I can drive my country’s own product with pride. But I will probably have that car until I die. So I have to know that the producer will support it—with full understanding of its importance as a symbol, an innovation, and a revolutionary new technology. And of course I want to buy the best available electric car based on technical specifications.

I still lust after an electric car, and I still would like to buy one built in America. If GM had fully supported the Volt, and if it were really a serial hybrid as advertised, my decision would be easy. But I’m no longer sure that the Volt is really an electric car, or that it represents the wholehearted commitment to electric drive trains that I would like to see, and that Nissan-Renault is apparently making. And Ford’s announcement is still just that: words.

Lack of corporate commitment has immediate practical implications, as well as long-term ones. The first GM dealer I approached for a Volt added several thousand dollars to the its universally published price, just for fun. That’s another unfortunate consequence of GM’s lack of full commitment: the Volt’s scarcity increases its market price and lets dealers gouge.

So now I’ll have to wait until April, when I return from a long trip abroad, to make my decision. Of course I’ll announce it in this blog.

I advise all other electric-car fanciers to be equally circumspect. Our auto industry has been a snake-oil salesman for far too long to view its stated commitment to something this new and revolutionary without a degree of skepticism. If Nissan-Renault wins in the end, so be it. But I want to give even slow-thinking Detroit every opportunity to reform its laggard and profligate ways before I abandon it (and my compatriots who work for it) to pursue a future that is as clear to me as the sun rising in the morning.


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