GM’s big bet: the Chevy Volt

The Atlantic has a fun piece on GM’s ambitious plan to bring the Volt to market by 2010. I generally don’t go in for overripe tales of corporate heroism, and I definitely don’t go in for economic nationalism, but hell if the story didn’t make me want to hoist up an American flag and blast the Mellencamp from the transistor radio in my ’68 Chevelle:

> Because it will have both an electric and a gasoline motor on board, the Volt will be a hybrid. But it will be like no hybrid on the road today. Existing hybrids are gasoline-powered cars, with an electric assist to improve the gas mileage. The Volt will be an electric-powered car, with a gasoline assist to increase the battery’s range.

Doesn’t sound like a big deal, perhaps, but most industry watchers seem to think GM’s goal simply isn’t possible with today’s technology. And, in fact, they’re right: GM has basically placed all their chips on the table, betting that they can develop a radically new car and a radically new battery simultaneously. It’s an inspiring and somewhat desperate act from a company that has been better known for its missteps and setbacks in recent years.

While the engineering is no doubt impressive, the most brilliant thing about the Volt seems to be the publicity campaign — and I mean that in the best possible way. By opening up their normally secretive product design process to outside scrutiny, GM has practically turned the car — which doesn’t even exist yet — into a consumer movement. Buyers are practically willing this thing into existence. It’s hard not to root for the beleaguered giant.

The author of the article thinks that GM will probably not quite succeed, but come close enough. Dates will slip a bit, prices will rise, but not so far or so high that the Volt becomes GM’s latest public flop. Here’s the great thing, though: it doesn’t really matter if the Volt itself is the car that pushes electric drivetrains to the mass market. The competition — Toyota, BMW, Nissan, Tesla — have taken notice. I hope not to own a car for a good long time, but I’m pretty sure when I do, it’ll be electric.

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