GM’s Chevy Volt is the best thing to happen to electric vehicles since the Prius hybrid. In fact, it would be even bigger than the Prius if more than 10,000 were being made next year. The car represents revolutionary technology. It makes electric vehicles palatable to the mass consumer – at least conceptually if not based on the $41,000 price tag. The electric vehicle business was in desperate need of a car like the Volt that could take the worry out of driving electric. By adding the internal combustion engine (ICE) to drive the electric motors when the vehicle’s on-board battery is exhausted the Volt offers an acceptable range for any kind of driving requirement.
The car also features cutting edge componentry with a low-weight, low-energy stereo system from Bose, an OnStar telematics system (with five years of free service) with an iPhone app, and a multiple-screen vehicle diagnostic experience. The car looks and feels and drives like the future. But the simplicity of the Volt concept belies the complexity of the electric vehicle business and therein lies some long-term concern for the viability of any alternative fuel vehicles. A big contributor to the complexity of the EV picture has been the Regulatory Authorities.
My kingdom for a PZEV
The regulatory authorities are well-meaning bureaucrats who are trying to stimulate demand with financial incentives for specific types of cars while providing guidance to the auto maker community regarding which kinds of vehicles will be acceptable to meet fleet emission standards. These efforts have produced an alphabet soup of vehicle categories and a maze of definitions that have been further confounded by the automotive press. From the regulatory authorities we were originally given (see Strategy Analytics reports referenced below for detailed definitions and history):
· TLEV – Transitional Low Emission Vehicle
· LEV – Low Emission Vehicle
· ULEV – Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle
· SULEV – Super-Ultra Low Emission Vehicle
· ZEV – Zero Emission Vehicle
These categories would be humorous in and of themselves but they have already been superseded by:
· ILEV – Inherently Low-Emission Vehicle
· PZEV – Partial Zero Emission Vehicle
· AT-PZEV – Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle
· NLEV – National Low Emission Vehicle
Again, it is tempting to chuckle, but these categories have very real and very specific definitions that can mean the difference between a $7,500 vehicle incentive and a combined $12,500 vehicle incentive. The Volt is a case in point. Because the car was introduced with an 8-year/100,000 warranty on the battery instead of a 10-year/150,000-mile warranty it did not qualify as an AT-PZEV according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) requirements and missed out on the additional $5,000 incentive in California for which the Nissan Leaf does qualify. (This was in spite of the fact that GM reportedly tested and validated the car for the 10-year warranty and expects to boost the warranty for the current Volt or on a new version of the car by 2012.)
EVs not EZ
To make matters worse, the automotive press and industry trade associations have their own roster of EV categories – presumably reflecting their assessment of consumer perceptions. The Electric Drive Trade Association lists the following categories:
· HEV - Hybrid Electric Vehicles
· BEV - Battery Electric Vehicles
· EREV - Extended Range Electric Vehicles
· Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles
· Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
The Volt is sui generis! It is the only EREV, according to the EDTA. This is something that bothers industry types. This would be a minor point if it were the end of the conversation regarding the definition and categorization of the Volt, but it is not. According to some sources the Volt operates as a “plug-in series hybrid” or as a “power-split or series-parallel hybrid” depending on speed or driving mode. By the way, in California, the Volt is considered a ULEV and not a SULEV based on emissions testing.
When is a Volt not a Volt?
Few cars in the history of the automotive industry have been subjected to as much scrutiny as the Chevy Volt – suggesting some strange American instinct toward eating its own young. The Chevy Volt is unquestionably the nastiest, most clever move the automotive industry has pulled in decades. It just seems to frustrate the heck out of regulators and journalists and analysts. GM pulled a fast one out of its hat – one just wishes the company had plans to pull more than 10,000 out of its hat this year. (One might argue that Subaru of America has been a good deal more clever than GM. The company has sold a combined total of hundreds of thousands of PZEV designated Foresters, Legacies and Outbacks that are “sometimes even cleaner than some hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles,” according to the company.)
“I’ll ask my manager.”
Which is where the Chevy dealers come into this story. Having recently attended a Chevy Volt launch event I visited my local Chevrolet dealer. There was a single Volt on the showroom floor, as promised by the Website. (There are four or five Chevy Volt dealers in the area. Not all Chevrolet dealers qualified to sell Volts.) The car in the showroom had a “Do not touch” sign on it with a message that the car was already sold. Of course, that meant that the car was also locked so that the dealer was not able to give test drives, could not demonstrate the clever on-board and OnStar systems, and could not allow a customer the experience of simply sitting in the car. A salesperson indicated that he did not know when they would get any more vehicles and he was not sure what other dealers in the area had any Volts. I returned home and entered my name on the dealer’s waiting list and was called almost immediately. The salesperson on the phone said four cars were due to be shipped in January and one, a white one, was not spoken for. To reserve this incoming Volt, the salesperson said, I would have to put $5,000 down. I asked about the widely reported $350 lease on the car – an attractive option considering the limited life of the battery. The salesperson said there was no lease available and then he suddenly added that to get the Volt that was coming in January I would have to pay $5,000 over MSRP. There is little that will kill enthusiasm for a new car faster than a dealer charging $5,000 over MSRP. It wasn’t bad enough that I could not drive the car, could not sit in it, could not see it do its sexy technology stuff right there in the showroom.
Whether you want a ULEV, an EREV or a serial-parallel hybrid, you will still need to be prepared to do battle with a dealer who will use your enthusiasm against you. Who knew changing the automotive industry would be so difficult. (For the record, GM and Chevrolet representatives say they have specifically asked dealers NOT to charge above MSRP for the cars and there definitely IS a $350 lease offer on the Volt.)
Further insights: http://bit.ly/gtyxic - EV/HEV Technologies Supply & Fitment Database - Kevin Mak - Automotive Electronics Service http://bit.ly/devMOq - Hybrid Technologies Legislation/Support - Kevin Mak - Automotive Electronics Service http://bit.ly/eC7kFy - Impact of Volt, Leaf Transcends Modest Sales Expectations - Roger C. Lanctot - Insight – Automotive Multimedia & Communications Service