The Failed Chevy Volt That Just Won't Go Away

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There are some ideas that, no matter how often they rise and how spectacularly they fail, just won't go away. Perpetual motion machines, for example. Passive exercise machines. Diets that work. These technologies sound great in theory, but don't seem to pan out in practice. Add to the list, electric (or largely electric) cars.

People who have looked into the history of automobiles have noted that while electric cars have never managed to rival internal combustion cars for their performance, comfort, reliability, or customer-attractiveness, they persist in inspiring a small segment of the public. And would-be social engineers have always loved them.

As Robert Bryce points out in his book Power Hungry, electric cars are the "Next Big Thing. And they always will be." Bryce observes that EV-boosters have been flogging electric cars since 1911, when the New York Times declared that "the electric car "has long been recognized as the ideal solution" because it "is cleaner and quieter" and "much more economical." Of course, that all depends on how you define "ideal" and "economical."

Let's talk economics first. Electric and hybrid-electric vehicles are more expensive to make and bring in less profit than other cars. They cost more to finance, more to repair, and more to insure. Their sales depend heavily on tax incentives, which means that selling more of them will require more taxpayer dollars. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that plug-in hybrid vehicles cost $3,000 to $7,000 more than regular hybrids, even though the performance differences between the two models are slight, and the really fuel-efficient hybrids cost $12,000 to $18,000 more than the conventional brand. Consider the GM Volt. When it was first announced, the price estimate from General Motors (GM) was $30,000. That soon jumped to $35,000. Today, they sell for nearly $40,000.

Hybrids are also more expensive to insure, which has been known for some time. Back in 2008, online insurance broker showed that it cost $1,374 to insure a Honda Civic but $1,427 to insure a Honda Civic Hybrid. Similarly, it cost $1,304 to insure a Toyota Camry but $1,628 to insure a Toyota Camry Hybrid. According to State Farm, hybrids cost more to insure because their parts are more expensive and repairing them requires specialized labor, thus boosting the after-accident payout.

And that, of course, presumes they don't burst into flames, which brings us to today's not-so-"ideal" headlines. Several crash tests have suggested that the plug-in hybrid Volt, the flagship vehicle at Government Motors, has a bit of a problem: when hit or badly disturbed in accident tests, the Volt's Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) battery packs have been seen to spark, or burst into flames afterward.

GM is a bit spooked by all this, and is offering Volt owners loaner-cars in case they're concerned about the prospects of their vehicle, well, exploding on them. GM denies any real risk of this, of course. But then, they didn't exactly emphasize the fire risk in their last electric car foray.

While few may remember it now, GM's EV-1 also had battery-related problems. In the case of the EV-1, fires, euphemistically known as "thermal incidents" were happening when people plugged the cars in to recharge. GM had to recall 600 of its first-generation electric cars after 16 such "thermal incidents" including one where the vehicle was engulfed in fire.

What is surprising here is that people are surprised. After the rash of exploding notebook computers a few years back, people might have thought about the wisdom of trying to run a car on the same kind of batteries that can detonate your laptop. As John Hockenberry wrote in a Wired article in 2006, "The technical term for these bizarre incidents is thermal runaway. It occurs when the touchy elements inside a Li-ion battery heat up to the point where the internal reaction accelerates, creating even more heat. A sort of mini China Syndrome of increasing temperature builds until something must give. In the case of a laptop flameout, the chemicals break out of their metal casing. Because lithium ignites when it makes contact with the moisture in the air, the battery bursts into flame." Hockenberry predicted that things would only get worse, as more is demanded of a battery technology that is at its practical limits.

Ever since there have been automobiles, there have been people who have fixated on electric cars. They've been predicted to take over the market nearly every few decades since the turn of the last century. Like diets that work, they're better seen as "tomorrow's technology of tomorrow."


Kenneth Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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