General Motors just unveiled the final production version of the Chevrolet Volt, a car that some say will save the company while others believe it will bankrupt it. The Volt is a new kind of car, so new that nobody's quite decided what they're going to be called.
People seem to be settling on calling it an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (or EREV.) Others are calling it a REEV (range extended electric vehicle) while still others prefer the technical term "series hybrid." One thing it is not is just another hybrid vehicle. Whatever they're going to be called, car companies are drooling over the possibilities. After GM announced the Volt, Mazda, Ford, VW, Volvo, and Jeep began planning their own EREVs.
EREVs (which have never been mass-manufactured) never use gasoline to move the wheels. Instead, the electric engine drives the car 100% of the time. However, when the batteries get low, an on-board gasoline generator kicks in to re-charge the batteries.
The end result is that the Chevy Volt will be able to travel 40 miles without a drop of gasoline. Since most commutes and errands take less than 40 miles, the car won't use gas at all in regular daily use. However, unlike other electric vehicles, if you run out of charge, you aren't stuck. The gasoline generator can always fill up the batteries, and you can always fill up the gas tank.
This is possibly the only solution that could make electric vehicles work with existing technology. Because we in America tend to refuse to purchase cars that don't have four seats, a top speed over eighty, a range of over 300 miles, and a price under $30,000, there is simply no other solution.
The solution that comes closest to the Volt (and takes us further into full-electric vehicles) is Project Better Place. Unfortunately, Project Better Place would require a major infrastructure investment. Plus, PBP's battery replacement system would require that all cars use the same battery. And in America, where choice (or at least the illusion of choice) is king, those preferring larger cars might not be so happy with smaller batteries.
GM expects the Volt to be more expensive than the average American will want to pay at first. But hopefully mass manufacture of the lithium ion batteries will bring the price below $30,000 without too much trouble. But the prospect of having a car that the majority of people would fill up only on long trips is a game-changer.
While most companies are rushing to release their own extended-range EV, the one company not doing anything in EREVs right now is Toyota, who has repeatedly affirmed their belief that the Volt will be a complete failure. Those of us with a history in green car journalism might feel a little bit of Deja Vu...that's exactly what GM said about the Prius.
The Volt won't be available until late 2010 at the earliest, and speculations at GM indicate that it will cost more than $35,000. But by 2010, gas prices might be so high that $35k looks awfully cheap for a car that you never have to fill up.
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