Why Care about the Chevy Volt’s Planetary Gear? Follow the Money

Detroit – Why has the complex drive-train engineering of the Chevy Volt become a headline in the popular press? Why does anyone care whether the Volt is an EREV (extended range electric vehicle) or a series hybrid? Simply put, it’s the difference between whether Government Motors gets a $7,500 tax credit — or just $3500 per Volt sold. It’s the difference between whether the sticker says $41,000 or “just” $33,500. It’s the difference between how many credits GM gets towards Obama’s artificial average-vehicle-mileage mandate of 35 mpg.

When the feds start running consumer markets, engineering quibbles matter.

As Holman Jenkins wrote in the WSJ on Wednesday, “the gasoline engine that generates electricity when the (Volt) batteries are depleted will, under certain circumstances, directly turn the planetary ring gear and help drive the car.”

Engaging the planetary ring gear is the type of genius engineering solution auto nerds come up with to make cars better. The Volt, properly understood, is a “plug-in hybrid” since it is capable of running on the battery ALONE all the way to 100 mph (a “dual mode” Prius hybrid, by contrast, runs on a gas engine with a battery for low-end assist).

But by crossing the breach between the gas engine driving a generator or directly driving the wheels (that outer, “planetary” gear in the transmission), it created havoc for GM’s public-relations department which had advertised the Volt as the real deal electric (“230 mpg!” Also a fabrication, but that’s another story) and therefore worthy of the $7,500 “electric” handout as opposed to the $3,500 “hybrid” handout. Regardless, GM — or rather, the rich Greenies who need the latest $40-grand status symbol — will get your $7,500 in tax money because the tax credit was designed for the Volt in the first place.

The whole flap shows the cynical loopholes that pervade this industry now that the government is making the rules.

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