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WARREN, Mich. -- When you hit the POWER button of a Chevrolet Volt, nothing seems to happen. Then you push the shifter to D. There is no sound. Push down hard on the accelerator and the car takes off, pressing you firmly back into the seat. The Volt can hit 60 miles per hour in about 8.5 seconds. The driver feels no gearshift points because in an electric car there aren't any.
"Quiet, isn't it?" whispers a General Motors Corp. technician, over the sound of the wind and whish of the tires.
"It is not a hybrid vehicle," Andrew Farah, the Volt's chief engineer, recently explained to a group of reporters. "This car is fundamentally an electric vehicle. The [gasoline-powered] motor is there to deal with range anxiety."
Much is expected of the Volt. Environmentalists hope it will be the first of a long line of cars that will begin to bite chunks out of the 25 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions that is attributable to motor vehicles. GM executives have already bet a billion dollars that the Volt is an "iconic" brand that will help "reinvent" their bankrupt company. Politicians and labor unions hope the Volt will give the region's depressed economy a fresh jolt of "green jobs."
But change has traditionally come to American auto companies in small, annual increments. Farah and his fellow engineers have spent two frantic years preparing to produce a vehicle that is radically different than anything most living Americans have driven. Now that production is about to begin for the estimated $40,000 vehicle, GM gets to what could be a trickier problem: selling it.
"It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue," Farah, an electrical engineer, explained during one of GM's periodic previews of the car for reporters. If there is early public acceptance of the Volt, then the company's production volume rises and suppliers are forced to compete with each other, eventually driving down the Volt's price. If not, then the Volt could be another costly mistake strewn along GM's long, meandering drive to develop the electric car.
A century-long struggle to curb 'range anxiety'
Overcoming range anxiety -- the fear that your electric car will run out of juice and leave you stranded somewhere on the highway -- has been a major factor in both designing and selling the Volt. Farah, 47, knows more about this problem than most people. For one thing, his grandmother drove an electric car down the streets of Detroit in the first heyday of the electric car, around 1910.
Thirty thousand electric cars were on the road in 1912, the high point of the earlier electric era. They were more expensive than gasoline cars, but they sold, mainly because they appealed to women. Unlike gasoline-powered cars, they didn't require the brute force to start them with a crank, they didn't belch fumes or make noise, and they featured salon-like enclosed cabs so the lady of the house needn't get dusty.
That created the primary sales resistance to the electric car. It came from men. They found the cars too feminine.
As Albert Clark, a sales manager for Detroit Electric, once told his salesmen in 1916, there were ways they could maneuver around this: "The best way to smooth out the selling road to this man is to talk about the electric car as though it were a modern, powerful, red-blooded automobile in every sense of the word."
The Detroit Electric claimed it had defeated range anxiety. "All users of Electrics have regretted that they were not able to go just a little further on a single charge," asserted one advertisement for the car. Crammed with heavy batteries, front and rear, the Detroit Electric could go 140 miles on a single charge (at the then breathtaking speed of 12.5 miles per hour). After that, though, there was still this problem of winding up stranded somewhere.
Fast forward to the 1990s, when Farah, then a young engineer was working on GM's earlier attempt at an electric car, the EV1. Although later versions of the car had a range of 150 miles or more, Farah was told to think of a way to give test drivers more comfort when their battery gauges began to falter. What if they got stranded? One of his fixes was a little trailer with a gasoline-powered generator on it. Thus, wherever the EV1 went, a charge was just behind it.
A later fix was a generator powered by a small Japanese motorcycle engine that Farah managed to fit in the EV1's trunk. While these were only experiments and the EV1 was canceled in 2003, the idea carried on into GM's internal ponderings over the Volt, which began in 2006.
Removing cars from 'the environmental dialogue'
Extensive consumer research done during the evolution of EV1 showed 64 percent of U.S. commuters drove a round trip of 40 miles or less. Last year, in a technical journal, three GM engineers revealed the auto giant was at work on a new concept: the "Extended-Range Electric Vehicle." Unlike hybrids and so-called plug-in hybrids, which power the wheels with a combination of power drawn from a gasoline engine and batteries, this car's wheels were turned only by electricity.
When battery power dropped below a 30 percent charge, a small gasoline engine would turn on and recharge the battery. The upshot, according to the report, was that range anxiety was finally dead. Drivers could run on and on, "without fear of being stranded."
Part of the grand strategy behind what became the Volt, the report noted, was "to remove automobiles from the environmental dialogue." The average commuter who didn't need to use the "range extender" (the company's term for the small gasoline engine) didn't use any gasoline at all. In what appeared to be a direct shot at Toyota -- which is about to launch a new, plug-in version of its popular Prius -- the GM study noted that that the Volt would be cleaner and use half of the gasoline needed by a plug-in hybrid.
But being merely cleaner or more fuel-abstemious than their peers may not cut it with the average American driver, so GM has developed a second selling line. Like the old Detroit Electric ad, it portrays the Volt as a more "red blooded" car. The Volt has been developed to mimic the performance of one of Chevrolet's more muscular cars, the 250 horsepower, V-6 Malibu, noted one GM official. "It can replace any car in the household," he stressed. "It was always designed around the principle that this is a regular car."
Or, as Farah recently put it just after he drove the first pre-production model of the Volt, "anyone should be able to get into a Volt and drive it with very little preparation." The car should "not surprise them unnecessarily, but should excite them."
Competitors are also charged up
Late next year, when the first production Volts are scheduled to hit the showrooms, will surely be an exciting time for auto buyers and carmakers. Toyota Motor Corp., which has sold 1.27 million Prius cars around the world since 1997, will have the first version of its plug-in Prius on the road.
The company's executive vice president, Masatami Takimoto, recently told reporters that the Prius will remain the best "green" car for the foreseeable future. Electric cars, he asserted, still need "drastic improvement" because their batteries are too weak.
Honda Motor Co. promises to make its Insight hybrid, already the cheapest on the market, still cheaper. And Nissan Motor Co. is modifying its plant in Smyrna, Tenn., to produce electric cars that, according to the company, "will comfortably seat five people, drive on any American road or highway and have an initial range of 100 miles before recharging."
Mitsubishi Motors says it will begin selling next April what it calls the "ultimate eco-car," the Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle, or the i-MiEV. It is a mini-car with a lithium-ion battery and a range of 100 miles before recharging. The company promises it will deliver "sportier, quieter driving" than the gasoline version of the car.
GM is preparing charts for dealer showrooms that show its Volt will cost 2 cents a mile during periods of peak electricity demand and 1 cent a mile during slow demand periods, such as early morning or late evenings. The battery, which can be recharged at home at night, will draw less power than the average water heater, but slightly more than a clothes dryer.
The nation's electric utility industry, which has been championing the electric car for decades, loves this kind of rhetoric. But the competing claims will be confusing to buyers who have never thought of a car as an electric appliance, or as a possession that quietly spins the household electric meter in the middle of the night.
The confusion is likely to last for some time. As one GM official explained: "The Volt isn't the endgame. It's just the first car. We can go smaller and bigger."