• Apr 26th 2010 at 7:37PM
  • 35
2011 Chevrolet Volt – Click above for high-res image gallery

In a rainy parking lot behind the Long Beach Convention Center, Chevrolet Volt Vehicle Line Director Tony Posawatz is egging on his last test driver of the night, while Bill Nye "the Science Guy" coaches from the back: "Okay, so want you want to do is hug this next curve with your right wheels – now punch it...puunnch it!" Each time the prototype Volt squeals around one of the wet asphalt corners, then straightens again without disturbing any of the bordering cones, the carload of grown (mostly) men would giggle like my son does after a fart joke. The women were just as aggressive, and just as thrilled – but everyone is at least slightly surprised to be smiling at all.

Over a decade ago, these drivers all leased the EV1, an experience that left them sold on electric cars but unconvinced that General Motors could ever be committed to one. When the EV1 program finally ended, some became very public about their frustration, while others just faded away, packing away the experience as souvenir of a future that came a little too soon.

For many years, GM did the same, seemingly willing it all to go away. But while the 2007 Volt unveiling was meant to be a bold step in a new direction, many saw it as a disjointed attempt to atone for the past. For their part, GM met the cynicism with relentless transparency throughout the Volt's gestation, publicizing so many battery developments, supplier engagements, and plant choices that media briefings became nearly cliché. There have been some questionable choices – touting utopian triple-digit miles per gallon numbers invited wrath from media and enviros alike who saw it as greenwashing. (Notably, Nissan advertised their even higher number, 367 mpg, for the Leaf just a few days later and barely created a blip.) Over time, though, tongues have largely been removed from cheeks when mentioning "General Motors" and "electric vehicle" in the same sentence, as press releases have given way to pre-production vehicles and other milestones were achieved. Read on after the jump for more.

In stark contrast to the media flurry, the recent event in Long Beach resembled the automotive equivalent of a speakeasy – a few stolen hours in the midst of another event, and a handful of somewhat subversive emails inviting folks to come see and drive the Volt in a random parking lot. Clearly not an element of the traditional vehicle launch machine, this was a more personal interest by Tony and his team to not only to rekindle a relationship between GM and the EV1 drivers, but to understand what inspired it in the first place.

And no question, driving the car was a good start. TV and film editor Jeff U'ren was candidly impressed: "My Prius serves its purpose, but after driving the Volt, it seemed tinker-toyish." But this bunch never questioned that GM could build a good plug-in car if it wanted to, and it was the conversation that followed that was more important. There was some venting involved, more than a little reminiscing, some product comments and deployment questions and a general abundance of what GM folks have euphemistically referred for years to as "passion" but most GM reps had ever seen firsthand – at least, not in a good way. They'd grudgingly taken the heat for decisions made and carried out years ago mostly by people who are no longer there, but few had experienced the heady days of intensely loyal drivers who made and aired their own EV1 commercials, created online communities that still exist and formed enduring friendships with fellow drivers and program employees alike. As the drivers relived their enthusiasm, the Volt team saw what they'd only heard about but believed they could recreate – during the drive event, it seemed even more possible.

Parking lot test drives alone are not enough. For several years, GM has been meeting and planning with different utilities, NGOs and other stakeholders to put substance behind the talk – policy, infrastructure, incentives, and so on. In doing so, the company has inadvertently helped raise expectations for such transparency by all electric drive automakers; no longer does a press release or a glossy static display at an auto show suffice for long. Industry veterans have started looking to each other to figure out if a program is credible – and if none of our "co-conspirators" have seen it, touched it, and (preferably) driven it, it runs the risk of being considered vaporware, whether the company in question is Ford or Fisker. Some of that is simply a by-product of seeing so many projects announced and abandoned, but much is an ironic result of GM's engagement.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the conversation continues through the inevitable launch handoff to Chevrolet. For GM to squander what it has started would be a mistake. There's enough general demand to speak for the first couple years' of Volt production, so this isn't going to be a battle fought on marketing, but with the customer's experience. All the marketing in the world won't save the Volt if the first customers don't have a good one. So, Chevy's time will be best spent not on choreography and jingles, but on processes and support systems for sales, infrastructure, service, incentives, etc., that make buying and driving a Volt easy and fun. Do this right, the early owners will become natural ambassadors for the vehicle.

But in these random parking lots, the Volt team has given Chevy a notable head start. Through their skepticism, the drivers look for glimpses of light. They resonate to Tony's humility and sincerity, and that he clearly loves the Volt like they loved their EV1s. The rest of the team is composed of a similar blueprint, one that is proud of and dedicated to what they're doing but willing to admit what they don't know. For a community of early adopters, it's hard not to root for that. They even like that the whole experience feels a little like deja vu at a time when GM is trying mightily to be a brand new company. As architect Colin Summers put it after his experience, "this isn't the GM that crushed the EV1, it's the GM that built them in the first place – and that's pretty cool."


Chelsea began working in the auto industry before she was old enough to vote; her work on General Motors' EV1 program was featured in the Sony Pictures Classics film, Who Killed the Electric Car? She led the creation of the Automotive X PRIZE, co-founded Plug In America, and currently runs the Lightning Rod Foundation, through which she conspires with various stakeholders to get plug-in cars back on the road and educate consumers about them. Chelsea is also a consulting producer on Chris Paine's next film, Revenge of the Electric Car.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Hey Dan, I don't think one person can do it all. You heap a ton on a person's shoulders. Chelsey spent more time selling and promoting EV than most. She has done more for EV exposure than anyone except a movie producer. Dan, don't forget that saying from the god father, " you keep your friends close and your enemies closer". Also, " you catch more bees with honey than vinegar".
      I just though of something funny, their are very few people that have ever sold a Chevy/Saturn EV. Actually the only thing sold was the lease but still their must just be a handful of people that were in the right place at the right time and the right frame of mind to do that.
      Very rare amount of people indeed. Evchels, thanks for all your EV efforts.

      Bob Lutz did say a EV would be easy compared to the Volt. I expect he was doing some PR work making that statement.

      GM needs a CEO like Goshen from Nissan. If you can answer yes to these three questions, EV's are the correct path for auto manufacturers to make profits in the future.

      First, Do you think the price for fuel for the ICE will go up in the future?
      Second, Do you think carbon emissions are going to become more restricted?
      Third, Will oil supplies become restricted in some way? For instance embargoes, war, refinery problems, supply and demand.
      Carlos Goshen makes it elementary, of course he could be wrong.

      I wasn't to pumped with the Volt but it still will help push EV technology forward. GM will be building batteries and is building electric motors, they must have electric motor controllers, they must build one speed gearboxes, all could also be used for EV's. Their are quite a few parallels, GM could easily switch to producing EV's if Nissan's Carlos Goshen's experiment pays off. Because of their financial condition I could see GM being gun shy for EV production, though I thought we bailed them out to produce efficient cars. For a brief moment in time I thought the President might make them build EV's, I guess they compromised by building the Volt.
      We must not forget that we, avid ABG readers are not Joe public, our wants and needs are a extreme minority compared to the whole USA population. I am as impatient as any one for EV's to be massed produced. Perhaps it is prudent for GM and Ford to wait and see how Nissan fairs in a full EV frontal assault. Carlos Goshen is a risk taker because he thinks he is right, he points out, that of course the other auto companies are going to say he is taking a risk, what are they suppose to say? "He is right and a very smart guy, we should be doing the same but we are not as smart as him."

      The Leaf, imiev, Volt, Think and other plug - ins need to survive and flourish to expose to the public a more efficient way to motor down the road without burning oil. We all know the benefits of that.
      When costs, be they environmental, financial, national security issues or other become large enough to get Joe public's attention, EV's must be there ready to scale up production thus leading to affordability which would lead to a larger and larger percentage of EV's in the light duty fleet world wide. The Volt will IMO allow GM to build EV's in short order it they choose to, the EV components are there already with the Volt. Maybe that is what Bob Lutz meant. If I did have to have a ICE, I would like it to have the Volts capabilities. I don't want to haul around a hunk of metal ICE in my EV so I will wait for the Model S from Tesla. Other than the little Yaris EV I have now.

      • 5 Years Ago
      I don't disagree with the fundamental point that all of this should have happened sooner, but I see it all slightly differently. All 6 of the major EV automakers of the 1990s disbanded their programs and stalled in the re-starting. All crushed their cars. GM was certainly the most arrogant and disingenuous about it, but they all followed roughly the same path, and all have some ground to make up. GM has the most, and as I said in the post, talk and test drives won't be enough, for any automaker. Proof will be in the Volt pudding, but given that it's a (mostly) new batch of people behind this car, I'm not yet assuming it'll end the same way. I think GM's acutely aware that they won't be given another chance.

      They are taking a different approach than Nissan, but I don't think that's a bad thing- not everyone will buy a pure EV, and GM's been looking at a serial PHEV since EV1 days, so this isn't a surprise. Having a variety of plug-in propulsion configurations can only benefit buyers, as there's no single car for everyone. But I do think that automakers having a good experience with their first plug-in programs will result in them adding more, faster than if the first car fails.

      I just don't see this as GM vs Nissan... Given that they're the only two of those original automakers to have a reasonably aggressive plug-in program (maybe Ford, but haven't seen enough to say), it seems to me more a comparison between those two and the rest. Honda and Toyota are the current laggards, imo, but with all of them it will come down to what they do, not what they say.

        • 5 Years Ago
        You make some good points that I have to agree with. There were no clean hands in the murder of the electric vehicle. But the bloodiest hands belonged to the headsman - and that was GM for selling the patent for NiMH batteries to an oil company. Toyota was sued and forced to stop making the Rav4-EV, they did not stop on their own. Toyota wanted to keep making them but couldn't because of the threat of additional law suits.

        And don't forget the tv commercials for the EV-1, downright scary. I've posted here in the past comparing tv commercials for cars that GM want to sell and they damn sure weren't somber, dark and frightening. GM knows how to sell cars. Anyone who thinks that GM actually tried to sell the EV-1 is seriously deluded.

        It isn't about GM against Nissan or Honda or Ford or ????. It is GM working against teh best interests of GM and against the American public. GM says that they want to sell the Volt. But they are only making 10,000 of them to start. And they plan to never exceed 50k or 60k vehicles a year. These numbers are too small to be taken seriously in a market of 10 million vehicles a year or 3 million even. The Volt is a great car and GM should put its drivetrain in all their vehicles. Yet they recently put out a BS piece saying the voltec drive system could not be used in larger or smaller vehicles. What a crock! It's just GM up to their old tricks of talking out of both sides of their mouth.

        I wish Chelsea was not working for GM again, it won't end well and her reputation as a champion of the electric vehicle will be tainted by the association.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The Volt is going to be produced in such small numbers as to render it statistically insignificant. What a waste of a great product. What a lost opportunity for GM to finally show the world that it regrets killing off the EV-1 and selling the patent for NiMH batteries to an oil company, directly assisting in the stifling of batteries for EVs.

      Has GM learned anything at all? I'm not sure it has.
      - - - - - -- - - - -- - - - - - - -
      I haven't heard of the Lightning Rod Foundation. Gotta check it out and add to my list of sites to keep up with. http://lightningrodfoundation.org/ says "website coming soon." I'd like to hear more about their activities.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Win them over? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.

        The first year production is 10,000 which is specialty house territory. That's just a joke.

        Subsequent years will be 50,000 and that is what I describe as statistically insignificant -- and GM has not announced ANY plan to exceed that production level, ever. At that rate it will take decades to recoup the $billion they have spent in development. That is not a viable business plan. Unless you intend to take a loss on every vehicle sold for decades to come.
        • 5 Years Ago
        That's just for the first year. You can't expect to bring a new technology online and instantly have the capacity for hundreds of thousands of battery backs. You also can't justify consumer demand if there is none. If consumers want the car, it will be built in large numbers.

        GM is trying to win the people over that it 'wronged' with the EV1 fiasco. It appears by this article, they are doing a good job.
      • 5 Years Ago
      It seems boring to you because you hang around all day on a automotive blogging site that posts a lot of similar content. To the average person, they will probably only here about the Volt in passing until the marketing steps up later this year.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I'll summarize this article for you guys so you don't have to waste your time reading..

      *wah wha wah whaa wha wahh* ( Charlie Brown's teacher )
        • 5 Years Ago
        Yeah, I got bored 1/2 way through and quit.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Seriously. Not sure why you're getting downvoted, that article was lame.

        When did this event occur? How many people were actually in attendance? What percent said they would purchase one when it came out? Seems like she left out a lot of the details.

        I get the comparison to the EV1 to a certain extent (both well publicized GM vehicles), but the Volt is not an EV, it's a hybrid. Yes, they're introducing a new hybrid architecture to the market that nobody else has bothered developing, but it's still a hybrid.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I've seen the movie.

        I'm just making a joke here. You guys don't have a sense of humor.. people are rating me down.. lol, sad.

        Or you guys dig the bi-daily press release from GM that basically says the same thing again and again
        • 5 Years Ago
        If you haven't seen "Who killed ..." or appreciate the effort some put in their work, you won't understand this article.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Hmmm.... The Volt is Boring? I think the Volt has a huge potential to reduce the US's dependence on foreign oil. We have 13.15 KW of Solar PV. That produces enough for my families house, my brothers house, and still have enough to power a Volt about 50 mi/day.
        Chelsea: Please keep us informed of further developments. I was so pleased to see GM reaching out to the EV1 community (rather than trying to sweep them under the carpet!).
      • 5 Years Ago
      Great story, Chelsea. It's going to be a great fall! Can't wait for the launch.
      • 5 Years Ago
      First, I am not working for GM- but I do have ongoing conversations with them and other automakers, just as many of the stakeholders and advocates do. I also do it because I am unabashedly interested in seeing these programs go better than the last ones did- it's what we've been working toward for the last several years. But I don't entirely trust any of them to get there on their own (or I'm not patient enough to wait), so I keep showing up. I know there are days when they all still think I'm an absolute pain, and that's ok.

      I actually liked the little appliance tv ad, though it was meant to only be a teaser and was unfortunately not followed up on. But I won't begin to defend the apocalyptic scarecrow and other ads- we fought against those at the time too!

      It's true that 10,000 vehicles won't save the world, nor will 60,000 annually (though it's more than many OEMs are planning anytime soon)- and when it turns out that demand exceeds product again, I'll be the first one on the appropriate doorstep asking for more cars, just as before. But I think that to get there, we have to let go of the past while still learning from it.

      I missed the statement that the Voltec system can't go in larger/smaller vehicles- but it doesn't make sense given that GM just unveiled the MPV5 crossover with the Volt system in it a few days ago. But at the end of the day, I care more about what any of them do than what they put in a press release. We won't really know for many more months, but I think some of what happens in the meantime is interesting, which is why I wrote about it- but it was hardly meant to be absolution.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Hi Chelsea, sorry my previous comments seemed to be derogatory towards you. That was not my intent at all. You have long been one of my "EV heroes" and I don't for a minute think that you are involved in making top level decisions at GM. My comment was only expressing hope that continuing stupidity at GM will not reduce your "EV street cred."

        It is great news that GM may finally decide to bring the Voltec drive system to other models in their lineup. Maybe I'm just too cynical where GM is concerned but if it actually comes to production I'll be surprised. I may actually faint.

        /Here is the link I referred to:
        • 5 Years Ago
        No worries, I didn't think your comments were derogatory (and thank you for your kind words!)- but it did seem a point worth clarifying.

        Thanks for the link too- I guess I'm less surprised after seeing who said it (I've seen Alan make pessimistic remarks before) and I understand what he was aiming at on the point of efficiency, but what a weird way to put it. Of course it takes more energy to move a larger vehicle around, but that doesn't mean it's not possible.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I tend to think the Volt was originally an exercise to appease GM's critics, especially since they are using taxpayers' money. I think they still view EV's as a bit of a toy or elite market, or something to put off developing for as long as possible. Now, I am guessing they are looking at what Nissan is doing and realizing that they really need to get EV's off the ground. GM better make the Volt work, or they're going to be out of business when the whole world switches to EV's. I hope they are planning on doing more than a few 10,000 Volts a year. They have a bit of expertise to help them compete with Nissan and they should not squander it.

      I mean, all this trepidation about electric cars .... all they are essentially is an electric motor connected to some batteries.....!!!!!! I had remote control cars 30 years ago that did this. It's not rocket science! And it's inevitable!
        • 5 Years Ago
        Volt was showed/announced for production before the "bailout" so I'm not sure why you think it was used to appease the American tax payer.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The point about the customer's experience being key is a really good one. From everything I've heard, the Volt is a great car. But if customers have to fight salespeople to buy one, can't get it serviced properly, don't get any information on how to get a charger installed or how to use it, and aren't informed of how to use it for the most electrical use without running the engine...they will not enjoy the experience.

      I agree that the Volt numbers aren't big enough to make a real mark on pollution, carbon emissions, energy dependence, and the economy. But if the overall consumer impression of the Volt is poor, future BEVs and EREVs and such will have a much harder time getting sales--if they are offered at all. We all should be rooting for the Volt to do well!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Thanks all for the comments in any direction, I appreciate it! Looking forward to seeing how this column evolves...

      I too hope all of the early EV programs do well, though I'm also realistic enough to know that for a variety of reasons, not all will. I do trust the public to sort it, even as it's occasionally frustrating that the technology gets held responsible for the people trying to execute it.

      I'm definitely not a GM apologist, but I do think that it's appropriate for them to start reaching out to the EV1 folks again- and that it's an interesting element to their attempt to get back into plug-ins. (And outside of the obvious aspects, every automaker should be communicating with those who've used EV technology over the last dozen years; it's a built-in focus group that's underutilized.) And I remain curious to see if they can pull all of this off- just as I am with the other OEMs.
        • 5 Years Ago
        you seem to be a very sweet person but to a fault. I know you mean well but meaning well was what precipitated the Volt. it was the massive shaming by who killed the electric car compounded by An Inconvient Truth and beaconed by the Tesla Roadster.
        These super assholes didn't weep because you wept over the EV1, the moved because they feared how their actions made them look. You are sweet to a fault and it makes you ineffective Chelsea. They haven't actually changed. The world changed somewhat and they are being slowly moved by that but we have seen no mea culpa from GM. they've gone out of their way to not admit guilt. they haven't changed Chelsea and they need you to speak harshly to them. they will no retract teh Volt nor is the volt an actually good vehicle. first of all it is 1 model, overpriced, overengineered (double size battery pack) and in the 3 years since their kneejerk panic reaction announcing the Volt they have not announced a single new green model to go with it. The Volt wont make any difference by itself. none.
        you are not helping by pretending they do good. they still need to be whipped and greatly so because they understand nothing else. there is no beauty in their minds. no desire to do good. only beastly minds that do not think nor care.
        Bob Lutz thinks global warming is a crock Chelsea. They need you to clearly tell them that all their cars must have electric drive. They need you to remind them of what they did to the EV1. what they are. what global warming is and what peak oil is.
        try to get GM to take responsibility for what they did to the EV1 and you will see they have not changed.

        even the Volt is not right. it's too heavy, has too big and not optimized generator, underutilized battery pack, not adequately aerodynamic. as a result it's too expensive and it is but one model in small volume.
        we will have to wait for heaven to have people as nice as you but for now they need you to turn into a hell cat, with fury like woman scorned : )
      • 5 Years Ago
      Said it before - I'll say it again.

      I hope they do well, because competition is good and I would like to make my money back as a citizen of the US.

      But 'transparency' is a pretty nice word for free marketing, which is beginning to nauseate at this point.

      And Nissan didn't raise a blip because their outlandish number was a sarcastic reply to the Volt claim.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow - Chelsea is not only smart and beautiful - she also has a talent for writing!

      Nicely done.

      I'm very happy to see that you are posting on Autobloggreen and I'm looking forward to your future posts.

      I am an EV owner/rider (Vectrix) and will soon be an EV driver... I was leaning towards the LEAF, but maybe I should wait and see what Chelsea writes next ;-)

      As far as "neptronix's" comment; clearly he is of the age (or maturity) of the Peanuts characters... 7? 8? ;-)
        • 5 Years Ago
        It's a gift...
        • 5 Years Ago
        Wow. Not only can oobflyer point out physical characteristics, he can patronize like a "Real Man".
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