I'm having a rare moment of optimism. Keeping up with news of the coming transformation of the American auto industry has been like trying to drink from a fire hose. The bottom line is this Detroit's got it's mojo back. But the EPA is placing the revival of the American auto industry in jeopardy in order to benefit a foreign competitor, Toyota.
Here's the problem.
The EPA hates American industry.
I swear to God. We finally get a winner in the American auto industry, and the EPA decides to take them out like a rogue quarterback.
The Chevy Volt is a revolutionary vehicle that has the ability to drastically cut US oil consumption. And it's part of new fleets from GM and Chrysler that recognize the new reality. The era of cheap gas is over, and the price we pay for oil is in both blood and dollars.
The problem that the EPA has is that the Chevy Volt is revolutionary, and if the EPA allows the vehicle to run as designed, the fuel efficiency is nothing short of amazing: 100+ mpg.
Unlike a hybrid like the Prius, which uses its electric motor, gas engine, or a combination of both to turn the wheels, the Volt's wheels are turned only by its electric drive unit.
Now, here's the rub: Reports suggest the Volt can make it through the EPA test cycle -- which from 2008 includes high-speed running, air-conditioning load, and cold-start tests in addition to the city and highway cycles -- with the internal-combustion engine running about 15% of the time.
The straightforward calculation gives the Volt an EPA fuel-consumption rating somewhere north of 100 mpg.<,b> But the EPA apparently wants to certify the Volt differently, insisting it finishes the test with the batteries close to full charge. That drops the calculated fuel consumption to just under 48 mpg, because the internal-combustion engine would have to be run essentially all the time to keep the batteries near full charge.
Why does the EPA hate the American auto industry? Insistence on this departure means that the vehicle goes from having a fuel efficiency rating that's a multiple of the Toyota Prius to being essentially the same.
Here's the problem. The Prius has a gas engine that works in tandem with an electric motor. The Volt is the opposite, the gas engine is a backup to the electric motor. What this means is that for roughly the first 40 miles of driving the volt uses not gasoline. You read that right.
If you drive less than 40 miles a day on a Chevy Volt, you will use no gasoline. After this the range extender, aka the damn gas engine kicks in. But even this is a winner. The gas engine for the Volt is going to be largely the same as for the new Chevy Cruze. And the bottom line is that fuel efficiency is going to be in the range of 40-50 mpg even when operating on the gas engine alone.
When the Chevy Volt concept was first introduced, GM indicated that when the vehicle was running on internal combustion engine (ICE) generator power, after the batteries charge was depleted, it would get 50 mpg.
Recently we found out that GM had decided on a different engine than it planned in the concept. Instead of being a 1-liter 3 cylinder turbo engine, it will be a 1.4 liter 4 cylinder normally aspirated model.
This led some to worry that the car would get less than 50 mpg in the ICE-mode.
In a new conversation I had with Volt chief engineer Andrew Farah, those fears are allayed.
The reason the larger engine was chosen was “a combination of will it do the job and will it do the job on time,” said Farah implying the very tight time frame to production was the primary reason for this change.
I'm not much of a car guy, but the takeaway from this should be that this is a fuel sipper. First, the gas engine is going to be a V-4 which saves gas. Second, look at the engine size, 1.4 L? In comparison my little 2002 Sunfire has a 2.2 L Ecotec in it. And I get about 28 mpg in the city. The Volt's gas engine is going to be a full third smaller than the one in my Sunfire.
Turning back to what the EPA is doing trying to calculate mpg, there's publicly available data that can give us a pretty good clue what sort of mileage the Volt is acutally going to get. The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) provides microdata that allows us to calculate what percentage of daily trips are over 40 miles.
The big problem is that the latest available data is from 2001, however the newest version of the survey is underway this year. What we can take a look at is information from a paper presented by government scientists at a recent battery conference. For technical reasons (this version is in miles rather than km) I'm going to use a table from the NHTS page instead.
What this tells us is that 48.6% of daily trip miles are in excess of 40 miles. That means that over half of US daily trips will require the Volt to use no gasoline. Now for that 48.6% of trip miles that are going to require the gas engine to kick in, we are looking at 40-50 mpg.
So let's take a look at this. The average American drives around 15,000 miles annually. So that means with a Volt 7290 miles annually are likely to be driven using the gas engine. At 40 mpg, that means that the Volt would use around 183 gallons annually. At 50 mpg, 146 gallons annually.
If we use this to calculate fuel efficiency, this means that the Volt is going to get between 82-103 mpg for the average American driver as defined by the NHTS. I think that EPA mileage statistics need to reflect this. We are going to have new NHTS microdata soon, and maybe the dawn of plug in hybrids provides a good reason to conduct the survey annually.
The 2008 CAFE fleet average is 26.8 mpg, so the Volt is a gigantic improvement. But no panacea.
What is good is that it's not just GM making the jump to electric vehicles, Chrysler has announced a new set of plug in hybrids and all electrics that are rivals for the Volt. And it's not just that, the new Chevy Cruze is going to be coming to the US GM is going to have a 40+ mpg car that wil likely be slightly above the price point of the Cobalt. So maybe $20,000 for a car that will have the same gas engine as the Volt and will get between 40-50 MPG.
It's going to take some time, but 5-6 years of sustained high volume production of these models and it's possible to imagine the US reducing oil imports by half or more. And for me that's something to get excited about.
Man, oh, man. Check this out. Jeep Renegade concept car, same tech as the Volt, 40 miles on electric, averaging out to 100+mpg. And I think that it could cure most any midlife crisis.