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.