The Chevrolet Volt went on sale ten years ago. The first American plug-in hybrid, the first green car of a traditional home brand from Detroit. In four years, it has found 70,000 customers, which is considered a failure. But mainly because of the exaggerated visions of President Obama, who wanted to see a million electric cars on the roads before he left office. The Volt is no longer produced, but its story is becoming more relevant.
Traditional industry has a complex relationship with alternative drives. He needs to develop them as a chance for the future, but he naturally fears risks and losses if this or that solution fails. It is not in the power of one company to change the entire market, which is why carmakers also welcome state intervention. Of course, only those that help them make a profit are defending others. This creates the image of traditional brands as inflexible molochs waiting for incentives from the state coffers.
The irony of the Chevrolet Volt is that the original idea was to do the exact opposite to disrupt established orders and show that even a conservative giant like General Motors (GM), famous for its vainly large and thirsty SUVs, can launch a small, efficient and environmentally sensitive car.
Product boss Bob Lutz was inspired to develop the car at the end of 2005 by three things: rising gasoline, the success of the Toyota Prius hybrid, and the public's attention to Tesla's first steps. So not subsidies, regulations, and emission limits, but the market and competition.
Inside the company, Lutz faced considerable resistance, as most of his colleagues were still fired by the EV-1 electric car. He prepared it for California in the 1990s, where a groundbreaking prescription was being prepared: one emission-free model as a condition for the sale of all other cars. They developed the electric car, supported it with a charming advertising campaign, and rented it to 600 customers for a test. In the meantime, however, they enforced the repeal of the regulation through the courts, taking the vehicles from people and against their will and scrapping them.
The whole story was completed by the success of the film Who Killed the Electric Car, thanks to which General Motors suffered a much greater disgrace than if the project had survived in peace. The EV-1 was an impractical, single-seater, two-seater with short-range, slow charging, and rapidly degrading lead batteries that had little chance of changing the market.
The task of the Volt was to repair the damaged reputation. Therefore, GM did not regret the astronomical development costs, which exceeded three-quarters of a billion dollars, and at the same time realistically expected sales of up to 30,000 cars per year. Such a volume is enough for the manufacturer's image, the sporty Chevrolet Corvette is no longer for sale. The economic return was at the very end, it was officially to come during the life of the second generation.
From the original radical idea of a clean electric car, the designers gradually came to a combined drive that allows you to drive less than 60 kilometers on a battery and continue with the help of a small gasoline engine. By American standards, the car still achieved dizzyingly low fuel consumption and independence from a small battery was more user-friendly than with current electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf.
As a study at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2007, the Volt received well-deserved attention, but unexpected circumstances soon came into play. The mortgage crisis brought the US economy down, including cars. In June 2009, General Motors went bankrupt and applied for state aid.
It could be expected that an expensive prestigious project without a clear prospect of return will go to the ice. However, the Obama administration, motivated by the idea that every innovation leads to profit, prosperity, and employment, made the Volt the main argument for saving the whole group, which then numbered ten brands and employed over two hundred thousand people.
The technological pioneer was to help change the entire carmaker, eventually the entire market and the whole of America. The president personally spoke of the Volt as the car of the future and, among other things, promised to buy it himself when he left office.
The Volt definitely became a hostage of politics in January 2011, when Obama reiterated his vision in the State of the Union Report to get a million electrified cars on the road by 2015.
The Ministry of Energy rushed to the study, which claimed that the goal would be met. However, she added that Chevrolet would have to sell 120,000 Volts a year. Four times more than estimated by internal analyzes. The Opel Astra-related car - a dwarf for the Americans - was offered at a price significantly in excess of the two Opel Astras.
Reputation exercises suddenly became exercises in political loyalty. GM's new post-bankruptcy director Dan Akerson, out of gratitude to the government, forgot all the real assumptions and was carried away by the statement that he would actually sell 120,000 cars a year. Analysts and competitors just shook their heads and history proved them right. The best years of 2012 and 2013 brought sales of around 23,000 cars, after eight years and two generations the story of fewer than 150,000 cars.
In the mirror of political visions, it looks like a failure, but in reality, it is the result of an adequate pioneering position, a high price, and an unprepared market. The electric Nissan Leaf has not sold more in the USA. He had a limited range, but he was cheaper again.
However, the total account still includes $ 240 million in support from the Department of Energy, a $ 150 million subsidy for a joint battery plant with LG Chem, and $ 1.1 billion in tax breaks for customers - which amounted to CZK 175,000 per car and were approved by the government. George W. Bush.
With today's price of gasoline and cheaper lithium batteries, the idea of a plug-in hybrid in America has not taken off much. In addition to conventional propulsion, purely electric cars are better sold than the Bolt model in Chevrolet. With him, too, GM has exhausted Bush's original quota of tax credits for the first 200,000 customers. The Biden administration has announced a proposal to expand support to 600,000 vehicles this year, and General Motors has immediately welcomed the initiative.
He confirmed that even ten years after Obama's leap into the future, there are no electric cars and for some time they will not be comparable in price to conventional propulsion, their sales will continue to depend on subsidies. This is despite the fact that a two-meter Volt battery would now cost only a tenth of what it did in the spring of 2011.
His story should not be lost sight of today's leaders, who expect the share of electric cars to reach tens of percent in a few years. All of America is not the same as California, all of Europe is not the same as Norway. Yes, the directors of some cars are also carried away by the unusually optimistic promises. After Dan Akerson's flight from General Motors, however, it is difficult to say what is the result of careful analysis and what is the next exercise in political loyalty.