Detroit, Michigan—Don’t write the obituary of the Chevrolet Volt just yet.
After a one-month shutdown of the Volt factory that ended in mid-April and after months of flawed criticism of its extended-range electric car, General Motors is encouraged by a record sales month in March and California rules that allow solo Volt drivers to use the state’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
“We’re just getting started,” GM spokeswoman Michelle Malcho said during a tour of the Volt factory by a Rocky Mountain Institute team that is studying advanced vehicle technology. “People need to see them in their neighborhoods” to drive interest and adoption over time, she said.
RMI this week visited Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, which used to build Cadillacs and other luxury cars and now is home to a 516-kilowatt solar array and a solar-powered carport to charge EVs. The visit was part of RMI’s continuing effort to “drive a transitional pathway toward a new paradigm” in automaking that leads to dramatically lighter, more-efficient vehicles, said RMI consultant Greg Rucks.
“The Volt plant provides a glimpse of the best and latest manufacturing technologies currently in use by the U.S. auto industry,” Rucks said. “Given our goal of facilitating a move toward a new manufacturing paradigm based on lightweighting and advanced materials, we'll have to thoroughly understand the existing technologies that have benefitted from over a century of investment and refinement.”
RMI, a proponent of lighter cars made of advanced composites such as carbon-fiber, hopes to break barriers to building lighter vehicles at scale, partly by recognizing and accommodating the intricacies of the existing system—in some ways represented by the 3,780-pound, steel Volt. “What better way to gain appreciation for those intricacies than to see them firsthand,” Rucks asked, “and what more appropriate vehicle to see them applied to than the halo car of the world's largest manufacturer?”
The Volt has been something of a political punching bag, incorrectly attacked as a government project pushed on consumers.
But Bob Lutz, a retired GM executive who pushed the Volt, has been fighting that criticism, including with an emerging argument of electric vehicles as a tool to fight terrorism by relieving America’s oil addiction. “Of all the forms of alternative energy under development for the transportation sector in the U.S., using natural gas for heavy-duty trucks and the electrification of light-duty vehicles hold the most promise,” Lutz wrote for Forbes.
Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute’s blueprint for a business-led transition from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewable energy by 2050, shows how vehicles made from ultralight, ultrastrong materials can provide radically improved fuel efficiency without compromising performance and safety. It shows electric vehicles’ potential to store energy and feed it back to the electric grid to help equalize power generation from renewable sources, further moving us away from fossil fuels toward a cleaner environment. The U.S.-engineered Volt is one of many EVs on the market that hold this potential, but has the highest profile because of GM’s marketing efforts and the vocal criticism.
As gas prices rise (yet again, as they will periodically do as long as transportation remains dependent on oil), consumers will take growing notice of the Volt, other electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, and other fuel-saving technology.
And at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, located in the historic cradle of the American auto industry just 4 miles from where Henry Ford launched the assembly line, workers will continue to be justifiably proud of their role in helping advance America’s transportation future.