Image: Chevy Volt
MARTIN KLIMEK  /  AFP - Getty Images
From the Chevy Volt’s driver’s seat we can glimpse the electric car’s future. We can taste it, and we can even experience it to a degree. But the future’s not quite here yet.
By contributor
updated 3/18/2011 7:52:35 AM ET 2011-03-18T11:52:35

At a time when most of us stream YouTube videos and buy multimedia entertainment from the iTunes Store, the recollection of a time when we depended on a dial-up connection over an analog telephone land line to retrieve a few kilobytes of text may seem vaguely ridiculous.

But while our consumer entertainment and communications gadgets have advanced to nearly magical levels of capability, our nascent electric vehicle industry is still in its formative years, reminiscent of the dark ages of dial-up.

The Chevrolet Volt is an example of this. From the Volt’s driver’s seat we can glimpse the future, we can taste it, and we can even experience it to a degree. But just as when we despised the torturous wait to download a single picture online, the Volt and the current state of electric vehicle technology leaves us looking forward to the vehicular equivalent of broadband connectivity.

Want to charge the Volt using the included 120-volt charger? Be prepared to wait even longer than it used to take to send your boss a big PowerPoint file for final approval — way longer. It takes 10 hours.

Want to use the nifty-in-concept OnStar smartphone apps to check the car’s charging, or its battery status? Think about that creeping Windows progress bar and plan to wait long enough to download a big photo file over the dial-up connection.

And when the battery is fully charged and you’re ready to whir off to electric nirvana? Nirvana better not be far away, because if it’s cold and dark outside your ten hours on the charger will have bought you only about 26 miles of electric range.

GM now says the Volt’s range is between 25 and 50 miles rather than the 40 miles discussed previously. The difference is important because the 26 miles I experienced in the car I tested is a lot different from 40 miles when making a round-trip drive.

And the complication is that because it takes so long to achieve your 26 miles of range on the charger, it can be tough to keep the car at or near a full charge. Thankfully, GM charges only $500 (plus installation) for the 240-volt home charger, because if you fall behind with the built-in 120-volt charger it seems impossible to replenish the charge you’ve lost. (Suddenly, the 75-mile winter range of an electric-only model like the Nissan Leaf seems amazing.)

However, unlike the Leaf the Volt has a gas engine to fall back on. It generates power to spin the electric motor when the battery is depleted.

This is, of course, better than walking. But running on gas power isn’t the way for a driver to feel good about purchasing the Volt. Twenty-six miles down the road and the forty grand spent for the green goodness of electric drive is reduced to a gas-burning car that doesn’t do as well on the highway as the Chevrolet Cruz Eco — a conventionally-powered car built on the same platform as the Volt, but one that costs half as much.

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Still, when it comes to everyday electric driving the Volt really delivers the goods. The numb electric-assisted power steering recalls the bad old days of American steering at parking lot speeds, inviting one-finger turning just like in Grandad’s old Cutlass, but it firms up at speed and provides a better feel once underway. The good thing about this problem is it’s a simple matter of a software tweak to eliminate that arcade game steering feel.

The Volt’s electric motor propels the car forward noiselessly and with impressive authority at low speeds. Electric motors make their maximum torque at low speeds, which can leave them wanting when 50-70 mph passing speed is needed to get clear of that big truck on the highway. Thankfully, the Volt musters adequate oomph at such speeds too, so the driver needn’t feel vulnerable when needing to squirt out of harm’s way.

I’ve found the ride in other versions of the Volt I’ve tested to be good, thanks to the road-hugging mass of a 435-lb. battery pack. However, the version of the car I tested for this review had a harsher ride than those others, and a quick check with GM confirmed that the 37 psi tire pressure was too high. (Maybe a previous tester was hypermiling with the higher pressure, but it isn’t good for the ride so I recommend sticking with 35 psi.)

The Volt is fundamentally sound in its operation, but there are areas for improvement.

The vehicle’s silent running in parking lots can sneak up on pedestrians, and blowing the horn would likely scare them to death, so Chevy has included the ability to make the horn quack like the AFLAC duck to warn of the Volt’s approach. It’s a neat idea, but having the horn control on the headlight dimmer means regularly quacking the horn accidentally when switch from high to low beams.

In fact, other controls in the Volt are designed so poorly they’d get a Microsoft engineer fired. In the middle of the dashboard — the “center stack” in industry parlance — is a smooth, high-gloss panel fitted with an array of capacitive switches, the kind that sense the touch of a finger. But they don’t sense the touch of a finger in a glove — this in a car that encourages you to forego heat to save the battery.

Additionally, the dozens of controls on the dashboard are hard to distinguish from one another. Want to find another radio station? Good luck with that. This abominable system recalls Ford’s infernal MyFordTouch system, with its interface that was so diabolical that Consumer Reports withheld its recommendation from the excellent Ford Edge because of the system’s shortcomings. At least MyFordTouch is optional on the Edge. The Volt only comes with these terrible controls, so it risks a similar rebuke despite its other qualities.

And then there’s the matter of the car’s lights. The single rear back-up light looks cool from the outside, but it casts a useless single cone of light rearward when backing at night.

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A more serious issue is the dimness of the Volt’s headlights. Remember the toy headlights on Schwinns and Huffys growing up? They worked well in our imaginations, but cast little actual light, dashing our hopes of riding our bikes at night. Today, LED headlights for bikes create the appearance of motorcycles on the bike path at night, so bright are the lights. So while the Volt driver aims to conserve electricity as frugally as Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, a switch to LED lights will both save power and improve the light.

Tony Posawatz, Volt’s chief engineer, hinted that better lights may be coming to future versions of the Volt. Chevy is already testing the 2012 version, adding small upgrades and planning to certify the car as a California Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, a label that requires a ten-year battery warranty. So having finished the race to deliver the first Volt, Chevy’s engineers can now go back and improve things that weren’t optimized in the rush to production.

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Explainer: Ten leaps forward in car technology

  • Image: Three-point seatbelt
    Volvo’s Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959.

    English physicist, mathematician and astronomer Sir Isaac Newton once famously wrote — with perhaps a touch of false modesty — that “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    Thus has the car industry incrementally improved from its primordial horseless carriage beginnings to the magic carpet ride of today’s almost incomprehensibly complex machines with their raft of safety, environmental and convenience devices adding to the basic transportation function.

    Here are 10 of the car industry’s most important technological changes.

  • 1886 Benz

    Daimler AG

    It all began with Karl Benz and his construction of a self-propelled, three-wheel vehicle powered by a single-cylinder 0.75-horsepower engine using a leather belt and two bicycle chains to transmit power to the rear wheels.

    However modest this beginning, with its exposed engine parts and whirling bits menacing anyone who examines it too closely, the 1886 Benz launched the industry and was the foundation of today esteemed Mercedes-Benz brand. (Maybe the leather upholstery was an early clue to the company’s luxury intent?)

  • 1912 Cadillac with electric starter


    The electric starter — invented by Charles Kettering at his Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco) in 1911 — became standard equipment on Cadillacs in 1912, paving the way for all cars to feature electric starters. This accelerated the industry standardization of gasoline internal combustion engines over steam and electric designs. It also put more women behind the wheels of cars because prior to the electric starter they tended to avoid using difficult-to-start, hand-cranked cars.

  • 1914 Ford Model T

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Introduced in 1908, the Model T was just another low-end car from the multitude of regional manufacturers in this country. In 1914 Ford separated itself from its rivals and became (for a while) the world’s largest industrial concern as the result of the Model T’s assembly switching from small teams of craftsmen assembling each car to a moving assembly line of unskilled workers each contributing the same small bit to every car on the line. Construction time to build each car plunged from 12 hours and 30 minutes to 93 minutes, and the car’s price fell from $690 to $360, while annual sales mushroomed almost ten-fold and Ford doubled workers’ salaries to $5 a day.

  • 1930 Motorola car radio


    Next time a boom car rattles your windows at a stop light, think back to the days before Paul and Joseph Galvin developed the first commercially available car radio in 1930.

    The Motorola car radio overcame a host of challenges, including electrical interference, finding space in the car for the bulky radio components and making the radio durable enough to survive the pounding of primitive roads. The popular 5T71 radio debuted at the Radio Manufacturers Association convention in Atlantic City, N.J., following a demonstration drive from Chicago to prove its durability.

  • 1940 Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic transmission


    Today few new cars are sold in the U.S. with a manual transmission and a dwindling portion of the population even knows how to use one. We can credit this dismal state of affairs to the invention of the automatic transmission and its debut in the 1940 Oldsmobile.

    The original Hydra-Matic automatic transmission offered benefits in terms of efficiency that surpassed subsequent designs, but that approach was abandoned in pursuit of smoother gear changes, which were more important to drivers. The company touted the ability to navigate stop and go traffic and to park without stalling the engine as the automatic’s primary benefits, and those features continue to drive the technology’s appeal today.

  • 1946 Michelin radial tire


    Until Michelin developed the radial, tire design had evolved little from the dawn of the car industry. The radial moniker refers to the direction of the reinforcing belts, which are turned perpendicular rather than running parallel to the direction of travel as in bias-ply designs.

    The benefits include a more stable footprint, reduced fuel consumption, longer tread life and better handling. The near-absence of any kind of maintenance or attention required led the government to mandate tire pressure monitors in cars because drivers had long since stopped checking the condition of their tires.

  • 1959 Volvo three-point seat belt


    Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959. The belt appeared in the automaker’s cars that year, and within a decade the belts were mandatory equipment in all cars sold in the United States.

    Bohlin’s background was in aviation, where he developed ejection seats, so he understood the necessity of securing the torso and not just the pelvis as the lap belt had done. The elegant simplicity of his solution is confirmed by the inability of newer seat belt designs to displace the three-point seatbelt 50 years on.

  • 1972 General Motors air bag


    While air bags didn’t become commonplace in cars until the 1990s, GM conducted a large field test of 1,000 1972 Chevrolet Impalas equipped with experimental air bags. Between 1974 and 1976, the company offered the world’s first production air bags in its cars, with the first appearing in a 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado. Though the company was prepared to build 100,000 air bag-equipped cars a year, only 10,321 were sold over three years despite a reasonable price of between $180 and $300 for the option.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirmed the robust construction of the early system by testing two of the old cars in the 1990s. Neither car ran and even the radio and clock didn’t work in one, but the air bags still deployed perfectly in the institute’s crash lab.

    “What’s important to remember at this point is that the air bags GM put into those early cars worked fine,” wrote IIHS president Brian O’Neill in a 1993 letter to the New York Times.

  • 1995 BMW and Mercedes-Benz electronic stability control

    Mercedes-Benz USA

    These premium carmakers battled to be the first to introduce an electronic stability control system that automatically stabilizes a car in the event of a slide. Though these expensive V-12 models were the first to feature stability control, they quickly verified the technology’s value with significant reductions in crashes. Subsequent studies showed that stability control-equipped cars are about one-third less likely to suffer a fatal crash, a result that encouraged the U.S. government to mandate stability control for all cars starting in model year 2012. The real safety advantage of stability control is that in contrast to seat belts and air bags, which mitigate the damage that occurs in a crash, stability control prevents many crashes from happening in the first place.

  • 1996 OnStar telematics

    GM  /  Wieck

    In our increasingly connected wireless world, the notion that the car should connect to a network over which it can share information may seem like an obvious development. But it was less obvious in 1996 when GM’s OnStar division was launched, using analog cellular telephone technology to send information to drivers and to automatically report crashes.

    Today other carmakers have their own telematics services and each month OnStar is now responding to 2,300 crashes, 10,000 requests for emergency assistance and nearly 30,000 requests for roadside assistance.


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