The Volt

by Russ Roberts on July 30, 2008

in Energy

Jonathan Rauch profiles the Volt, GM’s electric car. It’s such a good article I actually found myself rooting for GM, which isn’t easy. It’s a superb read and highlight both the financial and psychological benefits to GM from innovation.

Meanwhile, the price of gas fell ten cents yesterday at my corner station. That must make those engineers at GM and these guys pretty uneasy. Innovation is risky business. It’s amazing it ever happens.

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M. Hodak July 30, 2008 at 1:53 pm

I'll have to check the article to see if this might just be an "broken clock" example.

Dick King July 30, 2008 at 2:34 pm

The Tesla costs about $90,000 .

They're not selling freedom from gas price increases. They sell performance and uniqueness and wow factor, which I assume they deliver. They have nothing to worry about even if gasoline prices go below $2.


The other Eric July 30, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Based on the kilowatt hour costs in the Midwest the Volt should compete against gasoline at $2 a gallon quite well, let alone the new 'low price' of $3.80.

Lenny July 30, 2008 at 3:55 pm

About 5-years ago I was working with some fuel cell folks and it dawned on me that the future of transportation was in electric drivetrains powered by any number of sources depending on what, where and when. Once you have a good electric drivetrain platform you can couple it to a fuel cell, a pack of batteries, an internal combustion engine, or any other portable energy source you can devise as well as all sorts of imaginable "hybrid" forms.
And then I heard a GM executive introducing the philosophy behind the Volt concept and I thought these guys are actually ahead of the curve on something if they actually follow through. Too bad they've got so much corporate baggage that overshadows this bright spot.

Mark July 30, 2008 at 4:00 pm

They stole my high school science project from me. Now I want it back. Those Chevy jerks!

Chris July 30, 2008 at 4:08 pm

It's a neat idea. But, I won't buy until Honda or Toyota come out with their version. Detroit has been unable to demonstrate to me that it can make a car that doesn't fall apart.

BoscoH July 30, 2008 at 5:30 pm

I'm with DK. There are factors other than cost/mile which are driving the adoption of alternative fuel vehicles. People buy Priuses to signal how environmentally correct they are or to get carpool lane exemption stickers. Period. There is too high a premium on the price for it to make strict economic sense. Similarly with the Tesla Roadster, you're not buying on cost/mile.

Where GM has a huge opportunity with the Volt is making this kind of signaling mass market affordable. If they can make the vehicle not much more expensive per mile than comparable gas powered vehicles, and they can supply enough to satisfy demand, they'll have a hit. I'll wait for version 2, though.

Russ Roberts July 30, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Dick King and BoscoH,

You're right about the Roadster. But Tesla is also planning on a family sedan in the near future. And yes, some people buy cars for lots of different reasons. But as it gets more expensive, people will buy fewer of them. Not zero. But fewer.

BoscoH July 30, 2008 at 8:15 pm

Russ, I totally agree with your point. But the Prius right now has a supply problem, not a price problem per se. This gives dealers the ability to add some pretty hefty surcharges right now. As gas prices come down, demand for these vehicles may ease a bit. But I suspect it won't and I suspect Toyota would like to keep their Prius from becoming a Taurus. Green and alternative vehicles are to now what spices were 500 years ago. There's a national security undercurrent to the trend too — former CIA Director James Woolsey was proud of his Prius before they were "cool". Who knows whether a religious influence will gain traction. It has certainly materialized with the likes of Pat Robertson worrying about carbon emissions. The Volt has to tap into these kinds of demands rather than cost/mile because it can't win there even with gas at $4.

jpm July 30, 2008 at 11:37 pm

The Secret Life of Dr Roberts:

"we talked in a cluttered office, where he sat in front of a blackboard covered with scribbled graphs and equations"

Dr Pritchford Mitchford, Dr Mitty, Dr Roberts please report to the operating room!

That was the biggest puff piece I have seen in a long time. 5 huge pages of puff. They haven't even invented a working battery yet! The Telser is in production already.

Here is a more interesting article:

Maybe it's puff, maybe not, but it sure isn't dripping with Aint Jemima Syrup like Russ's piece!

John Dewey July 31, 2008 at 10:11 am

"There's a national security undercurrent to the trend too"

I keep reading national security arguments about fuel efficiency, but I don't understand them. As long as Middle East and Venezuelan crude continues to cost far less to produce than any other source, the developed world will still be buying from them. In fact, if the demand for crude drops due to fuel efficiency, those politically risky nations should be supplying an even higher percentage of the world's energy.

Companies are developing alternative energy sources – and drilling 35,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico – because the demand for energy remains high. Significant increases in fuel efficiency would discourage such investment, just as they did 25 years ago.

jp July 31, 2008 at 12:12 pm

the car has to cost as much or very close to regular gas versions. If they cost alot more they defeat the purpose for 99% of car buyers.

Its about lowest operating cost, till then its just a niche.

and if we do go electric and everyone is powering their cars at night. better build a ton more Nuke plants

vidyohs July 31, 2008 at 4:23 pm

I support jp's position and comments.

I am cynical about electric cars being the salvation because that still leaves us with generating electricity. Using energy to produce energy to use seems intuitively counter productive.

To me it makes more sense to pour more research into the hydrogen burning motor where the fuel is in abundance and little energy is used in capturing and converting it.

And then again we could rethink our basic problem and come up with another solution using materials at hand.

A vessel that attempts to move economically with its anchor dragging is going to be much more expensive than a vehicle that moves without an anchor dragging, right?

Each of our vehicles today has an anchor of at least ten democratic envirowhackos dragging at the end of the anchor chain, which makes our cars less efficient over all.

Now, in my humble opinion it would increase our efficiency tremendously if we cut those anchors loose and let them sink to the bottom where they won't interfere with our movements.

Now, I've come to the point where I must propose a method of cutting those anchors loose……..and, I'll leave that to your imagination.

I will give you a hint, Lennin and Stalin did the reverse, they sunk the vehicles and retained and cherished the anchors. How did they do this? Ummmm, would it be impolitic to suggest guns? Permanent removal. And, all their inheritors of rule continued that practice.

It is in my imagination to ask where would Russia be today had Lennin and Stalin taken a different tack and cut the anchors and retained the vehicles? ((Yes yes, I know it is an impossible paradox that an anchor would cut loose an anchor. But this is half serious and half TIC anyway))

Too much time on my hands, I guess.

Martin Brock August 1, 2008 at 8:37 am

Much energy is used in capturing hydrogen and delivering it for use as an automobile fuel. Hydrogen is not an energy source at all. It's energy storage medium. Extracting it from water or a hydrocarbon requires far more energy than burning it delivers.

The Volt's 40 mile battery doesn't seem so incredible, particularly Tesla already delivers a much greater range at the higher price. The battery's 10 year lifespan is hard to believe. My laptop batteries certainly don't last 10 years. If I were buying one of these cars, I'd want a very extensive maintenance agreement, including a 10 year replacement warranty on the batteries guaranteeing the 40 mile range.

50 miles per gallon of gasoline on long-distance trips also seems incredible. A gasoline engine driving a generator to charge a battery powering an electric motor driving the car gets 50 mpg, when tiny, conventional cars like the Smart only get 45? That's unbelievable.

But I hope GM succeeds. Electric cars probably are the future. The Li-Ion battery may not be the ultimate answer, but maybe it'll get the ball rolling.

vidyohs August 1, 2008 at 9:31 am


You may well prove to be correct about the amount of energy needed to collect and use hydrogen gas. However, this information seems to indicate that it may not be as difficult or expensive as you state.

I suppose time will tell.

tim stevens August 1, 2008 at 2:11 pm

I hope GM fails.

Under pressure from the CA air resources board (CARB) in the early 90's, GM produced the EV1. An electric vehicle which could be leased but not purchased.
After GM got the CARB rules eliminated, all the EV1's returned to GM (no lease extensions) and later destroyed.

I'm a free market kind of guy and yes, those cars were property of GM, but the absolute dishonesty and utter stupidity of GM executives warrants that company's bankruptcy.

Let Honda and Toyota (and maybe Tesla) deliver the electric cars of the future. Let GM and Ford (and what was that 3rd of the "big three" named?) go under.

Martin Brock August 1, 2008 at 4:49 pm

You may well prove to be correct about the amount of energy needed to collect and use hydrogen gas.

In the case of the electrolysis of water, as illustrated in your video, it's just simple physics. Hydrogen and Oxygen bound into a water molecule has less energy than free Hydrogen and Oxygen. That's why burning the two gases liberates energy and yields water. The device in the video uses electricity to separate H and O from H2O and then burns the two gases to recombine them into H2O. A car driven by burning Hydrogen produced this way essentially is an electric car, and driving the car with an electric moter directly presumably is more efficient.

As for GM's "merit", I don't much care. If the company achieves its development goals, it deserves some success, but that's a huge IF. I'm not predicting the success at all, only wishing for it. Even if the Volt achieves all of the design goals, 40 mile battery with ten year lifespan and 50 mpg when powered by gasoline, it still has many hurdles to cross. Parts will be extremely propriety, and no mechanic will know how to service it, for example.

vidyohs August 2, 2008 at 4:51 pm

No Martin, I am pretty sure you misunderstood the information in the videos.

The hydrogen gas is separated and burned in the same internal combustion engine the gas it augments is burned in.

It is separated from the water by electric power from a battery, yes.

So, we see hydrogen in abundance, easily captured and produced.

Now we just need to see technical advancement of the operation to where it becomes viable enough to replace fossil fuels in internal combustion engines.

Will that ever become economically feasible, I suspect it will.

Martin Brock August 3, 2008 at 11:27 am

It is separated from the water by electric power from a battery, yes.

Right. So a car driven by hydrogen generated this way essentially is an electric car. What have I misunderstood?

So, we see hydrogen in abundance, easily captured and produced.

Hydrogen and Oxygen gases produced from water through electrolysis contain more energy than Hydrogen and Oxygen bound in water molecules; therefore, energy must be added to the water to produce the H and O gases. Then burning the gases liberates this energy by recombining the H and O into water. The free hydrogen is not the source of the energy yielded by burning it. The electrolysis is the source of this energy.

It's like a satellite orbiting the Earth. To boost the satellite into a higher orbit, a rocket must expend energy. That's like the energy freeing the Hydrogen from the Oxygen molecule. Unlike classical Gravity, the Electromagnetic force binding H to O in water can draw free H back into a water molecule by radiating this energy. That's the burning H and O to yield water.

Now we just need to see technical advancement of the operation to where it becomes viable enough to replace fossil fuels in internal combustion engines.

Again, Hydrogen is not an energy source. It's an energy storage medium. Conventional internal combustion engines can't use it, so we need new engines. Conventional gas pipelines can't transport it, so we need an entirely new gas distribution infrastructure, and we need entirely new refueling stations. Also, the energy density, by volume, of Hydrogen is much less than the energy density of gasoline, even if the Hydrogen is in liquid form (which must be supercooled), so a Hydrogen car requires a much larger storage tank to achieve the same range.

I don't pretend to know what new technology ultimately will replace the gasoline driven internal combustion engine, but hybrid electric cars certainly seem the best bet in the intermediate term. They're certainly where the serious bets are placed now.

vidyohs August 3, 2008 at 3:06 pm

"Right. So a car driven by hydrogen generated this way essentially is an electric car. What have I misunderstood?
Martin Brock"

Oh just the fact that there is no electric motor in the vehicles powered this way

Which would seem to be me to be a huuuuuuuuge miss.

Martin Brock August 4, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Oh just the fact that there is no electric motor in the vehicles powered this way.

There are no vehicles powered this way at all, but I haven't supposed any electric motor. You're still burning gasoline to drive an electric generator to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen so you can then burn the hydrogen back into water. You're still converting the energy from gasoline into electricity before converting it into hydrogen. You could just as easily use this electricity to drive an electric motor, which is what GM proposes to do with the Volt. I have no idea why inserting hydrogen into the thermodynamic equation helps anything.

vidyohs August 4, 2008 at 9:30 pm

OOOOOH dear what can the matter be, what can the matter be, with dear old martinduckie?

Yep, duh, the motor has a battery so it's an electric auto.

Arf we go round the mulberry bush the mulberry bush until pop goes the weasel.

You're smoking or snorting again martinduck.

Martin Brock August 5, 2008 at 1:24 pm

You say nothing while ignoring well established laws of thermodynamics.

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