A month ago General Motors announced plans to wind down production of several under-performers. At the forefront of news coverage on this are the consequences facing factories making those cars, and the people who work there. The human factor associated with the closing of these plants is real. But there is also another milestone marked by the cancellation of the Volt. Here at Hackaday, we choose to memorialize the soon-to-be-departed Chevrolet Volt. An obituary buried in corporate euphemisms is a whimper of an end for what was once their technological flagship car of the future.
2006: Gas-Electric Hybrids Hit Their Stride, Battery Electrics On The Horizon
That was a future envisioned in 2006, the year of An Inconvenient Truth and a time when Hollywood stars would arrive at the red carpet in a hybrid instead of a limousine. Hybrids didn’t always make economic sense as only a fraction of Prius owners would save enough on gas to offset their up-front cost. But it was a high-tech car within reach of everyday consumers who wanted to do something for the environment (or at least, be seen as such). Eco-friendly was in, and Toyota basked in praise for their fuel-efficient hybrids. Tesla shared in this adoration, as their Roadster hit the show circuit and promised to be the start of a wonderful zero-emissions future, even though its price tag was far from mainstream.
GM found themselves out of step. Their big introduction that year was the new Camaro: a tire-shredding muscle car derided as primitively backwards. Whenever there is talk of environmentally friendly technology, GM was the villain Who Killed the Electric Car. A faction within GM, led by Bob Lutz, was unhappy about this public perception and sought to change it.
Car Hacking to Be The First To Take The Next Step
Since that perception won’t be changed by merely following, the team looked for something to put them a step ahead. Toyota’s Prius is an affordable efficient car, but still entirely powered by gasoline. Lithium-ion batteries that gave Tesla’s Roadster intense power and long range were very expensive, forcing an affordable car to have both a limited range and a small audience. In GM’s search for a compromise they chose an answer between those extremes: an electric car with a small battery to keep it affordable, backed up by a gasoline-powered generator to provide the in-between-charging-stations range consumers expect from a car. Their vision was a vehicle that was electric first and gasoline second.
For anyone analyzing the information available in 2006 — cost of Li-Ion batteries, rising gasoline prices, and lack of widespread charging stations — it was the next logical step and GM moved to take that step before anyone else. There was no time for a clean-sheet design so expeditious hacking began on an industrial scale.
A big hole for the battery was cut from the middle of an existing compact car platform and a complex motor-generator unit needed to be fit in the space where the transmission formerly sat. Everything not specific to the new car — from the generator’s gasoline engine to the power window switches — came from GM’s extensive catalog. These hacks allowed Volt to reach showrooms late in 2010. An impressively short time considering it required entirely new technologies, fighting GM bureaucracy, and surviving a global financial crisis.
2010: Chevrolet Volt Hits The Streets
The Tesla Roadster had proved a long range electric car was a reality, but it was a low volume toy for the rich. Yet it did one thing really really well: everyone knew Tesla stood for an electric-only future. And Tesla seized on this, buying an old GM factory in the middle of 2010 to make the Model S at higher volume.
GM was no stranger to mass production and had Volt’s own factory up and running. But where Tesla succeeded on their messaging mojo, GM failed. Almost no one understood the Volt was designed as an electric vehicle with a gasoline back-up system. Despite glowing reviews from enthusiastic early adopters, the Volt never sold in great volume. Neither GM marketing nor Chevrolet dealerships found an effective way to convey Volt’s advantages to a confused public. Too many consumers thought GM merely cloned Prius several years late at higher cost.
If 2010 costs of both lithium-ion batteries and gasoline were as expensive as predicted in 2006, the Chevy Volt would have been a near-perfect way to combine the best of both worlds and dominate the market. It never did.
2019: Battery Electrics Hit Their Stride
The Volt’s unique advantages faded as time passed. Every year electric vehicle charging infrastructure grew and lithium-ion battery cost dropped. Inevitably, there’ll be a point where a Volt no longer makes sense, the automotive equivalent of a VHS+DVD combo player: a transitional bridge to the future.
And that future has arrived. The car market of 2019 will offer several electric cars with over 200 miles of range at under $40,000 USD. Battery electrics are now where hybrids were in 2006: not necessarily a sound financial option, but one within reach of consumers who want them. And the first to arrive in this market? The Chevrolet Bolt. As it turns out, the Volt wasn’t just a transition for drivers to bridge two worlds, it was an educational transition for GM engineering and manufacturing as well. It paved the way for Bolt to reach market well ahead of competitors, though whether that first mover advantage will pay off for GM remains to be seen.
The Hacks Will Go On
But never mind the big corporation, look at the impact Volt has made on these pages! We’ve seen people hacking up their own variants at varying levels of safety and functionality. It’s much harder to satisfy government safety regulations so it was interesting to see how GM did it. We’ve digitally explored the Volt’s Cadillac sibling ELR and seen its battery capacity increased. And when these cars reach the salvage yard, intrepid hackers will undertake new projects possibly with custom electronics.
Production of Volt will cease
next in March, but its impact on the car industry and on industrious hacking will continue for decades to come.