Volt Launch: Back to the Future

by Henry Payne

The mighty GM publicity machine and its media chorus put on a show in Hamtramck, Michigan, on Tuesday, introducing Gubmint Motors’s new Chevy Volt electric car with the kind of fanfare not seen since . . . well, since GM rolled out its last ill-fated electric car, the EV-1,  just over a decade ago.

Even by Detroit’s carnival-barker standards, the first plug-in Chevy Volt to come off the assembly line generated an impressive display of hyperbole and myth-making. But then, not every vehicle launch is accompanied by politicians and the full-backing of the federal government. Washington’s ruling class has proclaimed the Volt a revolution in automobility (and GM is more than happy to milk the free publicity) which gave the event the air, if not the reality, of a game-changing moon-shot.

“Every aspect of the Volt — from its aerodynamic shape to its battery chemistry — is a testament to the importance of math and sciences,” crowed chief carnival barker Mark Reuss, President of GM North America, about the egg-shaped vehicle before him. “By encouraging Detroit-area students to pursue these topics, we hope to cultivate the next generation of engineers who will build upon the Volt’s innovative technologies.”

Actually, the Volt’s battery-driven technology is hardly new.

The battery lost out to the internal combustion engine (its current direct-injection evolution is itself a marvel of the math and sciences) in the early 20th century and has been playing catch-up ever since. What has changed is consumer taste. In 21st century, three-car garage America, automakers have discovered a new niche — not unlike sports-car-buying motor heads who covet Chevy Corvettes — of influential green buyers.

The current darling of this niche class might as well be steam power, the other technology that displayed early auto promise before succumbing to the internal-combustion engine’s superior mix of cost and convenience.

Why, if this GM electric thing fails for a second time (after a now-familiar greengasm of ecstasy over the EV-1’s revolution, a fickle press quickly soured in 1996 when the little electric didn’t get the advertised 100 miles-per-charge and sales sagged) . . . imagine — imagine! — a car that runs only on water, that is lighter than a combustion engine (well, if you leave out the boiler), that has instant torque and is as easy to refill as your local creek, and. . . and we’ll call it the GM Stanley Steamer! And Senator Carl Levin can take credit for it.

Since the automobile is the most regulated consumer product on the planet, political interference is inevitable. And so in addition to today’s roll-out of the global-warming-fighting, foreign-oil-independent Volt (which draws its electricity from coal and gets its lithium batteries from mines in Australia and South America) we also got Carl wheeling out his giant straw man.

“We’ve always known there would be doubters,” said the Michigan Senator in a letter to GM’s CEO — leaked for the occasion, natch. “Congratulations on answering them so well. (TheVolt) is testament to the notion that industry and government can work in partnership to advance the complimentary goals of strengthening our industrial economy and protecting our environment.”

Actually, no one ever doubted GM — America’s biggest car company — could build an electric car. But plenty have reason to doubt whether it will ever sell above cost (the $41,000 wonder costs $40,000 to produce), whether it’s good policy for American taxpayers to be subsidizing rich celebrity buyers like Leo DiCaprio at $75,000 per Volt sold, and whether anyone other than green elites will pay $41,000 for a glorified Chevy Cruze with gas at $2.90 a gallon.

Hamtramck was a glorious place to be Tuesday morning as American ingenuity polished another beautifully engineered product. But while pols were high-fiving each other over the government-industry collaboration that brought us a planet-saving small car . . . just a few miles south on I-75 in Detroit, Jeep Assembly was cranking at full-speed, three-shifts-a-day, 24-hours-a-day to meet America’s unslakable thirst for $30,000, V-6 –powered Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.

And they make a nice profit of $5,000 apiece.

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