The Volt’s Trouble: Back to the Future


These electric vehicles are getting complicated. Washington must bribe their rich buyers with a $7,500 taxpayer subsidy – and a free, recharging station in many cases (also courtesy of Uncle Sam). Now to address concerns of Chevy Volt fires, GM has added a “depowering protocol.”

For a general public that just wants reliability in their transportation “appliance” — like a washing machine — this does not bode well for Barack Obama’s “car of the future.”

“For starters, in the case of future on-road Volt accidents, General Motors plans to send technicians out to each car within a day to properly de-power the battery,” reports Car and Driver. “GM says it is worth the resources to actually send corporate folks into the field to ensure the cars are properly shut down. Yes, this will mean putting someone on a plane from Michigan or elsewhere to Anytown, USA.”


“The reality is that it does make me a little uneasy — a little bit, a tiny bit,” Lyle Dennis — a New York neurologist and Volt owner – told the New York Times.

GM spokesmen this week have tried to reassure customers that this is the price of any new technology. Reporters have echoed the sentiment, with the Times calling EVs a “nascent technology” that “is in its infancy.”

In fact, electrics are not at all new.

They are as old as the internal-combustion engine and — despite repeated attempts — they have never been more than a niche vehicle precisely because of a myriad of shortcomings, like the Volt’s current safety issues.

“The automobile opened up this country for exploration,” writes D. E. Johnson, author of the superb Detroit-auto-industry novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme, and an expert on the electric-vs.-gas-vs.-steam competition of the early 20th century. “Touring became the rage, the pastime for the rich. This was a problem for the electric. Gasoline-powered cars could be driven anywhere gas could be delivered. Charging an electric required electricity — something not readily available in the country. In the early 1900s electrics got an average of about fifty miles on a charge. Who wanted to take the chance of getting stranded?”

Sound familiar? Despite impressive advancements like lithium batteries, nothing much has changed.

“Who bought them? Mostly city folk,” continues Johnson “City doctors — house calls, you know. The purchase of purely electric cars was limited to a tiny part of the population: people who could afford to buy a car just for city driving.”

Kind of like that New York neurologist today.

“Unfortunately, batteries, whether nickel-steel or lead-acid, didn’t get significantly cheaper,” writes Johnson. “Gasoline automobile prices kept diving, driven by intense competition and improvements in manufacturing efficiency. The price gap kept growing, and the self-starter for the gas cars eliminated the greatest advantage the electrics held — easy starting. By the time ‘The Great War’ began, electrics were on the ropes. By 1920 they were all but gone.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The same old problems persist. Now add safety concerns.


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