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A Wish List for the Next GM Volt

The car is an engineering achievement, but it could easily be even more appealing.

After a week of driving the new 2012 version of the Chevrolet Volt in the Boston area, I’ve reached three conclusions. It’s an amazing car that’s fun to drive. But it’s not an ideal vehicle for city dwellers, and there are simple changes that would allow it to make a much more compelling case for electric vehicles.

All charged up: Technology Review’s energy editor, Kevin Bullis, charges the Chevrolet Volt during a test drive.

The Volt is a type of plug-in hybrid vehicle that can go about 35 miles on a battery charge, followed by hundreds of miles powered by a tank of gasoline. Unlike other plug-in hybrids, it’s designed primarily to be an electric vehicle, and this is where it shines. It’s engineered for speeds up to 100 miles per hour on battery power (I didn’t try that), with impressive acceleration and nimble handling that makes negotiating city traffic a breeze. But once the battery is depleted, it slips into hybrid mode, in which it gets a mediocre 35 miles to the gallon, about the same as the comparably sized gas-powered Cruze, and the ride is accompanied by the near-constant grumble of the engine.

The car is being marketed primarily as a fuel-efficient, green vehicle. GM representatives regularly remark how much driving it is like driving an ordinary gas-powered car. No doubt market surveys say this is a good approach. But the fact is that electric cars, by virtue of the instantaneous power the electric motors deliver, can be more thrilling to drive than conventional cars. At the same time, their quietness makes driving them relaxing. The power and quietness alone could be worth the extra price of the vehicle (it’s about $33,000 after a federal tax rebate, compared to $17,000 for the Cruze). This is a performance car, and could easily be a luxury car with a few improvements to the interior.

In the Volt, some of the power is stifled by the default energy-efficient driving mode, which dials back the rate of acceleration. Another setting, sport mode, is better—the pickup is noticeably better. But drivers need to select this every time they get into the car, or it defaults to efficiency mode. Yes, plug-in cars can be very efficient and reduce gasoline consumption. But to make much of an impact, people have to buy them first. These cars are great to drive, and that should be emphasized. One way could be allowing drivers greater freedom to tune the responsiveness of the acceleration, rather than just selecting between sport and normal modes, and to leave it set the way they like it. 

GM has taken efforts to make the electric car less intimidating to drivers. Including the gas engine is a big part of that—it’s meant to address the fear of running out of charge. But the company could do more. 

When the car was delivered to the offices of Technology Review, the battery was depleted and the car was operating in hybrid mode. The first priority was getting the thing plugged in and the battery charged. Here’s what could have happened when I climbed in the car and pressed the start button. The center touch screen display could have offered to use the navigation system to direct me to the nearest charging station and automatically reserve a spot. Once there, the charger could have recognized the car, automatically unlocked itself, and allowed me to plug in.

The technology to do most of this exists now. Pasquale Romano, the CEO of Coulomb Technologies, which has a network of charging stations, including one that’s just over a mile from our offices, says all the infrastructure to identify the charging station location, provide directions, and reserve the spot is already built into his charging network. He’s waiting on the automakers to enable the technology in their cars. GM says it’s working on a system, but hasn’t yet announced firm plans to include it in an upcoming model.

For now, subscribers to GM’s OnStar service, which costs $300 a year, can use it to get driving directions to charging stations, and in fact the Volt comes with a three-year subscription. But given how crucial charging locations could be to Volt drivers, being guided to nearby ones should not require the extra step of activating OnStar—and you shouldn’t have to pay extra for it.

GM could also make the car friendlier by redesigning the console, which looks like a spreadsheet, with its rows and columns and inscrutable abbreviations (I had to look up “AS 1-2” and “TP” in the owner’s manual). Also, it should lose the cumbersome black charge indicator that’s wired to the charging cord.

Having the Volt for a week also made something else clear—this is no car for city dwellers. It’s better for someone who parks in a garage with an outlet. Although there happened to be a charging station not too far from the office, charging stations are still rare in Boston, and a garage with a handy outlet is almost as rare. I had no place to plug in overnight, and although I work in a building with a parking garage, the building makes no outlets available to tenants. 

Until charging stations are more widespread, the market in cities will be limited. That’s too bad, because in other ways—including the short driving distances and the good performance of electric motors—electric cars are perfect for cities. 

This map, creating using data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, shows the location of registered electric charging stations across the United States. Raw data.

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