When GM unveiled its Chevrolet Volt concept car at last January's Detroit auto show, the car immediately became the object of a media frenzy. At the unveiling, the car was swarmed by reporters for hours, and within minutes, blogs had pictures and words of praise for the alternative energy concept. GM was in the enviable position of not really having to hype the car at all, as it generated its own excitement among the media.
Is the Chevy Volt overhyped?
At the show, I looked over the car along with all the other journalists, intrigued at new body plastics from GE and the series hybrid powertrain. But on reading the press kit that came out with it, I noticed that GM points out that the large lithium-ion batteries needed for this design hadn't been invented yet
. That dulled my interest in the car somewhat, along with its exterior design, which looked like that of a shortened Camaro.
So why the enduring hype about the Chevrolet Volt? Since the concept was unveiled, there has been continued rabid interest in the car online. For example, an erroneous story about employees of battery maker A123 Systems getting a chance to drive the car stirred up much online excitement. There's even a dedicated Chevy Volt forum and a Chevy Volt news site, all published independently of GM.
Hype around the Chevrolet Volt leads to it being used as a model for a sand sculpture.
What I find strange about all this rampant interest is that it extends way beyond the usual environmental crowd and into the automotive enthusiast sites and general media. Further, Ford developed a similar system that it showed off in its AirStream concept at the Detroit auto show. The Ford HySeries drive uses batteries to power electric motors, turning the car's wheels. In its concept, Ford uses fuel cells to charge the batteries. The GM E-Flex system also uses a large battery pack to power motors and drive its wheels. GM envisions a variety of possible onboard chargers for the batteries, from a small gas engine to fuel cells. Ford actually has a working prototype of its HySeries drive in an Edge. So why isn't Ford getting the same amount of attention?
While it sounds like I'm bashing the Volt here, I'm more concerned about the hype. I'm all for alternative energy, environmentally friendly cars. And I believe that we'll be switching over to some sort of electric vehicle during the next 20 years--yes, that's an optimistic estimate. And GM deserves some credit, as well. First, GM took a pretty heavy beating in the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car?. I didn't think that was fair, as GM put a lot of research and development into its EV1. At the time, I worked for an advertising company that GM tasked with promoting the EV1. This car, at one point intended to be launched under the Saturn brand, pioneered various electric car technologies, most notably regenerative braking, which is now commonly used on hybrids.
The Volt is unveiled at the 2007 Detroit auto show.
GM didn't start the hype around the Volt, it's just been riding it. When GM saw how much interest the car generated, the Volt got on the fast track to development. GM contracted A123 Systems to develop the currently nonexistent batteries, and there has been some progress. Dr. Bart Riley, CTO of A123 Systems, shows confidence in the science behind the company's battery pack research in a June 21, 2007 interview posted on the GM-Volt site. But he also admits the company hasn't built a prototype yet.
Maybe the hype comes from the fact that GM is such an iconic American automotive brand. Maybe it comes from the fact that the Volt was introduced with a small gas engine to charge the batteries, rather than more edgy tech, such as fuel cells. Whatever the cause, GM has the opportunity to pick up where it left off with the EV1.