This original post was a compilation of shorter news stories on the electric vehicle scene.  None of them was good news for GM or Nissan.

EV Follies for August 10, 2011

As regular readers know, I’ve been following the fortunes—such as they are–of the two electric vehicles—EVs—currently on the market: The Chevy Volt, which is a very expensive pseudo hybrid rather than a pure EV, and the Nissan Leaf, which is a pure EV, running on internal battery power or nothing.  Considering the range limitations of these vehicles on battery power, nothing is the rule rather than the exception. If you wish to read all of my EV-related scribblings, they’re in the SM Electric Vehicle archive.

Presented for your approval: A round up of recent information on these vehicles. Consumer Warning: the articles will not tend to make you burn with a touchy-feely desire to rush right out and buy a Volt or a Leaf.

#1: Volt Sales Skyrocketing!? Jonathan Last at The Weekly Standard (here) tells us that Chevy sold 281 Volts in February and thus far this year, not quite 2700. On the other hand, Chevy is planning to ramp up production to 5000 per month to keep up with—demand? Did they say “demand?” So they did. On the other hand, in the Age of Obama, spending is saving, flushing money down the toilet is stimulus, we’ve had a “Summer of Recovery” that wasn’t, and leadership is done from behind, so I suppose it makes sense to produce 5000 units per month of a car that is only selling 281 per month. I had no idea that’s what demand was. Good thing we have people like Mr. Obama, Mr. Geithner and Mr. Bernanke to explain these complex things to us.

#2: A brief story in The Telegraph (here) outlines one of the most powerful reasons not to buy an electric car: battery replacement cost. Apparently only 680 EVs have been purchased in England thus far in 2011 despite a government subsidy of approximately $8,152 (today’s conversion rate) for each EV. The biggest problem, though, is that the Leaf’s battery will need to be replaced, according to Nissan, “after a few years,” depending on how it’s used. Generally speaking, the more charge/discharge cycles, the more quickly the battery wears out, so the more often you use an EV, the quicker battery replacement will be required.

Chevy is claiming that Volt batteries will last 10 years and cost anywhere from $8000 to $10,000 to replace, this on top of a MSRP of about $41,000 (not including the $7500 government rebate or $2000+ for an optional fast charger), however, 10 years is almost certainly hopenchangey wishful thinking.  The real lifespan of a Volt battery is virtually certain to be substantially less.

Nissan is being far more honest than Chevy, but their numbers are even worse. In the UK, a Leaf sells for $50,545, minus the government grant of $8,152, it’s still a hefty $42,393. But the best part is that the Leaf battery, which is comprised of many smaller cells, will cost $31,618 if all the cells have to be simultaneously replaced (a virtual certainty). It’s possible I’m making math mistakes here, I am an English teacher after all, but my currency converter tells me that these numbers are accurate, at least today. If that’s so, why would anyone want to buy a Leaf, particularly in England? Replacing the batteries is 75% of the MSRP of the car!

#3: Popular Mechanics has recently completed a long term driving test of a Leaf, and in this article, provides a cautionary tale applicable to state of the art EVs. What’s up? Starting with an indicated 28 miles of range, the author headed for work, slightly less than 28 miles distant, but quickly discovered that an indicated 28 miles was more like a whole bunch less in real world driving conditions. The upshot is he was able, by chance, to find a friendly Nissan dealer who allowed him to charge—for two hours (?!)—providing just enough electricity to travel the remaining few miles necessary to make it to work. Reminder: The commute was lengthened by more than two hours so that the author could just barely make it—in maximum slow, pamper the battery mode—to work more than two hours late. Remind me again why I ever thought of buying a Leaf? Oh, that’s right: I never have thought of buying a Leaf! Whew! That was a close one!

#4: Smacked in the face by environmental reality! My pal Rob at PACNW Righty (here) has a great article on these issues, which includes cost analysis and the eco-realities of building and demolishing EVs and hybrids. Be sure to read the entire article, including the “emotional” section.

Car ownership is a complex matter, and issues of resale value, fuel savings, and reliability often take a back seat to more frivolous matters such as sex appeal, prestige, and in the case of the Volt or Leaf, greenie street cred. This is a good thing for those who plan to buy such vehicles, as they will surely never save money by purchasing a vehicle significantly more expensive than conventionally powered, far more flexible vehicles.

The Continuing Verdict: The technology just isn’t sufficiently advanced to make such vehicles commercially viable. Massive government tax credits and grants alone make that clear, but the reality that such vehicles will not save their owners a dime, short or long term, should bring this experiment to a rapid close. I suspect that will be the case should Mr. Obama be retired to the links in 2012.

“They that will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Generally attributed to George Santayana

And so it is with GM’s Cadillac division, apparently intent on repeating its experience with the Cadillac Cimmaron. 

08-11-11: A Cadillac Volt? The Horror!

A Cadillac—Volt? The Horror! Apparently IT’S ALIVE! According to Fox News (here), Cadillac is planning to resurrect a 2009 concept car then known as the Converj, but in 2014. The concept car received great reviews at the Detroit Auto show in 2009, but those reviews were based on highly polished sheet metal under lights on a reviewing stand.

According to Fox, the new car, which may have a three letter name like other sporty Cadillacs (might I be so bold as to suggest the BZZ?) would use the Volt’s powertrain “possibly with better acceleration to suit the Cadillac image.”

The original was not brought to market for what sound like entirely rational reasons:

First, GM could not make a profit at the low volumes the Converj had been planned for. Second, product planners were concerned that the greater weight and additional luxury features of a Cadillac would cut its electric range and performance–reducing its appeal, much as the Lexus HS 250h has sold in lower numbers than expected for Toyota’s luxury arm.

Considering the potential market for EVs in general, rationality is obviously in very short supply at GM these days:

Apparently, both concerns have been resolved. One reason for resuscitating the Converj, says our source, is that CEO Dan Akerson is ‘all about profit.’ The 2012 Volt lists at $39,990, and tops out (before dealer markup) at less than $50,000 [fifty thousand—dollars?!]. If some Voltec cars could be sold not for $45,000 but, say, $60,000, that might enable GM to make money on its first generation of Voltec cars. Or, perhaps more realistically, to lose less money on the technology–until a less-costly second generation can be rolled out.

Not only that, there is evidence that GM has been drinking the hopenchange Koolaid:

Now, with the Volt essentially sold out and GM trying to boost production as fast as possible, perhaps Converj volumes can go higher, meaning each car may cost less.

The article does suggest what’s really going on:

The Converj is not the only example of turbulence in GM’s product plans over the last three years. But now that a deal has been reached to raise corporate average fuel-economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025 [oh goodie!], insiders hope that the GM product plan will settle down. To reach those goals, plug-in cars will clearly become a larger portion of GM’s portfolio over time.

Fox did correctly identify two of the many major stumbling blocks of the Volt. In electric vehicles, light weight and slick aerodynamics are absolutely vital because the state of battery technology is such that Volts are averaging no better than 25 all-electric miles in realistic daily driving. Add weight or make the car less slippery and range dramatically decreases. Add accessories and luxuries that allow GM to charge more for the car and you add weight. This is compounded by the second major problem: Chevy is almost certainly losing money on every Volt they sell [stay tuned, gentle readers; none of us had any idea how much]. I can’t say that with absolute confidence, but Chevy has never claimed to make a penny on Volts, and taking into account the considerable criticism of Chevy for building an unprofitable vehicle for political purposes, Chevy would surely be trumpeting a profit–if one existed.

Notice that the article says the problems have been resolved, but completely ignores the issues of weight and range, and suggests only that if enough of the Cadillac sparky cars are sold at $60,000 each, Cadillac might eventually be able to make enough of them to make at least some profit. The other possibility is a miraculous “less-costly second generation.” This would be the much-rumored second generation with a warp drive-like advance in battery technology enabling travel to the outer planets of our solar system on a single charge. No quick charging station on Venus? Too bad.

Cadillac has always been an up-market division of GM which offered two premium features at greatly increased cost: performance and luxury. Performance is no big deal these days. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive to slide a Corvette engine into an aerodynamic Cadillac shell. It is likewise easy to make a basic vehicle much more luxurious. But experience teaches us that when one or both of those features are missing, it’s just not a Cadillac and won’t sell.

A case in point is the Cadillac Cimmaron of 1882-1988. Based on the four door version of the Chevy Cavalier economy car, GM tried to make it a fuel efficient, small Cadillac.  The results were predictable. Using essentially the same engine and power train as the Cavalier, a vehicle not noted for inspiring, smooth performance, it managed to make even worse mileage than Cavaliers, but made up for that failing by being slower and handling more poorly.  All of the extra weight required by its luxury trappings could not conceal the fact that it was merely a tarted-up Cavalier, and not by far the better class of tart. Traditional Cadillac buyers found it an abomination and other drivers recoiled at paying ridiculous prices for a slower, less fuel efficient Cavalier. It died a merciful death and Cadillac has not, to date, repeated that mistake in such a spectacular fashion.

And the Volt is “essentially sold out?” Considering that Chevy sold a total of 281 in February, one wonders just what is GM’s definition of “sold out” these days. It must be something like Janet Napolitano claiming that things on the southern border are better now than ever, or Dick Durbin claiming that the economy is great. I always thought that sales volume had something to do with profit—and vice-versa–in the car business, but hey, when you lead from behind I suppose things do look different.

Here are the realities that are going to smack GM executives in their collective snouts: Sticking a Volt power train under a larger, heavier Cadillac is going to reduce all-electric power to the 15 mile range, while the already weak gasoline engine will seem positively tubercular to Cadillac drivers. It appears that GM is on track to repeat the brilliant engineering and sales success of the Cimmaron all over again.

The real impetus for this particular automotive white elephant is clearly the 54.5 MPG CAFE mandate required by 2025. So GM will be building ridiculously expensive EVs that make no profit and really don’t work worth a damn.  Simultaneously, grossly overpaid unions will keep their political power and ability to donate to the corrupt politicians that keep them alive. At the same time, the politicians will be able to maintain the fiction that they are environmentally sensitive while forcing Americans to drive smaller and lighter cars that are far less safe. That’s hope and change for you.

See the USA in your Chevrolet, as the Dinah shore commercial used to say, but only if the USA is only about 25 miles wide.