GM: Engineered to Fail

January 21st, 2012 by Potato

Aside from the one a week and a half ago, I haven’t ranted on hybrids & EVs in a while. Nelson had a post at SPF talking about the GM Volt that kind of opened the door though, so here I go. There are a lot of nits to be picked: it’s less of a back-of-the-napkin analysis than a wave-your-hands-in-the-air-and-throw-a-dart analysis. He didn’t even use a spreadsheet! …But that’s not the main point. The point is, the Volt doesn’t seem to offer compelling value, even with the subsidies.

First up, in general efficient hybrids make a lot of sense. I’ve shown this again and again: you make the extra cost of the upgrade back several times over over the life of the car, which can lead to tremendous savings, though of course that always has some factors that can change the balance like gas prices or your driving habits. I made the ridiculous spreadsheet for you to figure it out yourself more precisely.

EVs make a lot of environmental sense: more efficiency, lower emissions, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s not clear yet if they’ll be financial slam-dunks like the efficient hybrids, in part because the first few models are only just hitting the showrooms now. They’re going to cost more up front, but require less maintenance and use cheaper power (especially off-peak). There are some other trade-offs, most notably range anxiety. They’re not going to be the car for everyone, but they don’t have to be — no single car is.

To help combat the big range anxiety factor, plug-in hybrids (PHVs) were developed: you could run off electricity for your daily commute, but still have the gas engine for longer trips.

The Chevy (GM) Volt is the first PHV to hit the market, with the plug-in Prius to follow later in the year. Now, I haven’t yet had a chance to see a Volt in person, but everything I’ve seen from the very first announcement has suggested that GM created it to fail.

Why not? They created their previous hybrids in a way that suggests they were trying to fail: the mild hybrid stop-start system was the cheapest upgrade from a regular car out there, and yet the least economical since it provided hardly any gas savings. Then the two-mode system was developed for the largest of the large SUVs, and it’s complex, expensive, and only offers modest efficiency improvements. But hey, you can tow with it. Basically everything was geared to sell more large SUVs: either hybrids that didn’t work whose sole purpose seemed to be so GM could shrug and say “oh noes, no one wants to buy hybrids. Guess we’ll just build SUVs” or hybridized SUVs, so they could say “well, the American consumer really wants an SUV.” If you’ll allow me to indulge in a bit of conspiracy theory thinking, GM was behind a lot of the anti-hybrid FUD spread in the early days, with ties to the CNW report. Many of their executives certainly didn’t hide their disdain for new technology and saving fuel. And of course, this was the company that took perfectly functional electric cars and crushed them. They wanted very much to just keep building gassers and hoped hybrids and EVs would go away never to return.

So the Volt was announced at a time of desperation: gas prices were spiking upwards, and consumers were running away from fuel-gobbling SUVs. The Volt announcement had the air of vapourware: less of a “look at this awesome car we’re putting together that you can buy any day now” and more of a “please don’t run out and buy a Toyota, Honda, or Ford… just hold on for a few more years and we’ll have something for you!” The initial specifications (which I am too lazy to look up now and link to) were clearly unrealistic. The concept versions at autoshows were the antithesis of practical: square, blocky corners with no aerodynamic properties. Huuuge long engine compartment, tiny passenger/storage compartment. Basically, designed to look like a muscle car or land yacht of old. They joked that it would be more aerodynamic backwards. The initial estimates for efficiency were laughable: no way was it going to hit those targets.

Commercials started being aired on TV for a car that hadn’t even been invented yet. It was clearly just another exercise in marketing.

But then the financial crisis hit and GM went bankrupt, and suddenly it seemed like they had to actually make the Volt.

In the end, it is a plug-in hybrid. But that’s about all I can say: instead of taking an Atkinson-cycle engine to get Prius-like efficiency when running off the gas engine, they just grabbed an off-the-shelf Otto cycle 4-cylinder and plopped it in there. Once the initial charge runs out, it gets far worse fuel economy than a Prius — about the same as a regular gasser. It’s expensive, far more expensive than promised in the vapourware state. I don’t have the exact Canadian numbers to work with, but it looks like it only breaks even vs. a gasser, and that’s after the government subsidy. In the end, a Prius or other efficient hybrid would be the smarter choice (or perhaps a true EV like a Leaf, though I don’t yet have the specs for that, either).

It’s ugly, and that’s coming from a Prius driver. It’s small, seating only 4 because of the T-shaped battery, and from early reports has poor visibility and trunk space. It’s not terribly efficient. I just can’t get away from thinking that this damned thing was made to fail. It has all the hallmarks of being cobbled together at the last minute, and doesn’t seem to be a very worthwhile effort. As much as I believe that EVs, hybrids, and PHVs are the way of the future, so far I’ve found little to recommend the Volt.

But just because the Volt doesn’t have the efficiency to be worthwhile doesn’t mean that’s going to be the case for EVs in general, or PHVs for that matter. And hybrids already make both financial and environmental sense.

One of the concerns that just won’t go away is the batteries: now with plugging-in the batteries are going to go through deeper charge/discharge cycles. Plus they’re bigger and more expensive, so the question people ask is what’s the risk of a battery failure? For Toyota, the last reported figure was less than 1 in 40,000 odds of a failure in the 2nd gen battery packs (currently on 3rd gen). These things are basically going to last the life of the car, and have a lower failure rate than an equivalently expensive part in a gasser (like a transmission going, cracking a cylinder head, etc.). Cabs have gone over a million kilometres with no serious degradation in battery life, and the first of the first gens are now about 15 years old and haven’t started dropping like flies from pure calendar age. The batteries are not a risk factor, and even then the cost is not steep since more are piling up in scrap yards from collisions than are failing otherwise. Ford recently announced their numbers and they’re even better: the odds of a battery failure are 1 in 8.5 million.

Now as incredible as that is, that’s for tried-and-true Ni-MH batteries, like the ones in the Rav4EVs that are also still going strong in deeper-discharge EV mode. The Volt has a new Li-ion battery pack, so we have yet to see if those figures will carry over (plus of course, the GM quality factor).

One Response to “GM: Engineered to Fail”

  1. Potato Says:

    Oh, I just thought of a more fair way of describing GM’s hybrids than engineered to fail: they were designed to do the absolute minimum needed to be able to stick a “hybrid” sticker on the rear, because they thought that was what sold cars, not fuel economy.