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The GM/Chevy Volt – The Future of Green Vehicles?

With the price of gas at all time highs and my car getting older and older, I find myself doing research on energy efficient vehicles. When I first started my search, I came by the interesting concept of the air car. Seems like a really cheap way to run a car, but I think that the technology has a long way to go before it reaches North America.

The next logical step was to look at the feasibility of hybrid vehicles. As it turns out, they aren’t economically feasible at the moment due to their high prices relative to their gasoline counterparts.

Most recently, I stumbled upon the concept of a purely electric car. This car is being made by General Motors and due to be in production by 2010. They call it the GM-Volt (or Chevy Volt).

What is the GM-Volt?

The GM-Volt is a vehicle that propels itself using an electric motor that runs on battery power only. There are a few charging options which include using household power, an onboard small gasoline generator, and kinetic energy from using the brakes. If charging via household power, the batteries will charge in 6.5 hrs and can run for 40 miles/64 km straight before the gasoline charging generator will kick in to maintain 30% battery power. When the gasoline generator is used, the Chevy volt can achieve 50mpg or 4.7L/100km.

How is the GM-Volt concept different than a hybrid car?

As mentioned above, the GM-Volt runs an electric motor with battery power in addition to a small gasoline generator used to charge the battery when needed. Hybrids are a little more complex where they use a combustion engine in conjunction with a smaller electric motor. The smaller electric motor is used at lower speeds, with the combustion engine kicking in when more power is needed.

Cost Savings

Theoretically, if the driver uses the GM-Volt for less than 40 miles / day, the GM-Volt would achieve infinite MPG or 0L/100km! The savings in gasoline would begin to pay for the car quickly, especially with gasoline prices as high as they are (and rising).

Mind you, there is a cost of charging the vehicle overnight. According to the GM-Volt fan site, assuming that it costs $0.10/kwh in your area, charging the Chevy Volt would cost around $0.85/night (6.5hrs). For 64 kms worth of driving, it would be well worth it!

Lets look at an example. Assume 20,000 km driven / year, $1.50/L gasoline, average 10L/100km fuel economy. In this scenario, it would cost $3,000 / year in gasoline cost. With the GM Volt, assuming that you drive the same amount, but less than 64km/day, it would cost approximately $0.85 x 365 = $310 in electricity.

Final Thoughts

For certain driving habits/scenarios, like in city driving, I can see this vehicle being a very popular alternative to it’s gasoline cousin. There is huge green factor to this car also, however, one has to think about how electricity is produced in your region. If your region uses mainly fossil fuels to generate electricity, then it’s debatable how “green” the electric car is for your area.

Personally, I’m already excited about test driving the Chevy Volt in 2010.

Photo credit: jurvetson

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FT About the author: FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Traciatim July 21, 2008, 8:36 am

    Is that 64KM in the winter? How about with air conditioning or heat on? How about with daytime running lights on as required in Canada? Is that ona test track that’s perfectly flat with no stop and go and no hills?

    Though I only drive about 10KM to work so something like this would do me just fine, I have my doubts thatit will be practical at all in Canada. Also, if it has something like a 16KWh battery pack, how is a 110V plug going to charge it in 6.5 hours. 16000W / 110 / 6.5 = 22A over 6.5 hours. Standard plugs are rated at 15A and people that need extension cords, say for your electric lawnmower are usually rated only at 12A. Plus that 22A is if the charger is 100% efficient . . . add in to that a cabin pre-warmer for the winter so that you can use less power while driving, you are probably going to need 220V plugs with 50A breakers . . . which is hardly going to be $0.85.

  • paul s July 21, 2008, 8:43 am

    FT:
    Interesting articles. Thanks.

    Retail cost looking to be $40K+, and sold at a loss for GM.

    I know this is unbelieveable :-) , but GM may not even get it to market before it goes under…

  • FT FrugalTrader July 21, 2008, 8:56 am

    Traciatim, I have a feeling that the gm volt won’t be as efficient in Canada as you also concluded. I’ll have to double check the battery pack size. I simply took what they mentioned as the charge time as gospel. :)

  • MunEconomist July 21, 2008, 9:45 am

    What is the life of the batteries? Replacement cost?

    Until this is known apples to apples comparisons can not be made.

    Although you point about this being great for inner city is well put. If companies added plug in coin operated charging at stores this would relaly help the concept work further.

  • Finance Kid July 21, 2008, 10:36 am

    I recently enjoyed a test drive in an ultra-green Honda FCX concept and it was outstanding. I’d probably have to pawn all of my worldly possessions to afford it but hey…life’s short.

  • AndyBuck July 21, 2008, 11:41 am

    Typically any kind of electric generation handled by a power plant is more efficient and better for the environment than the internal combustion engine. Also, alarmists that take electric cars and claim that they will require more generation capacity to be created are generally false. In most areas, there is a huge surplus of electrical generation at night, since they need to have the ability to serve the load during the daytime hours and you can’t ‘throttle’ generation – for the most part. Hence the cheap electricity over night.

    With respect to the charging of a unit, there will probably be a transformer involved on the charge cord that will step up the voltage while at the same time decreasing the current. That’s a fairly simple engineering problem, everything from your TV to your cell phone charger has one. That way the 110V outlet can be stepped up to 220V and run at 11A, not requiring any special outlets.

    Finally, I wouldn’t buy the GM version of an all electric car. I would rather obtain the Toyota Prius Plug-In model to be released at the same time. Simply because Toyota has years of recent experience with these types of systems. Their builds have been tried and tested, with battery lives being longer than 5 years.

  • Andrea July 21, 2008, 11:44 am

    A friend was telling me just the other day about people developing alcohol/ethanol fueled cars. Another girl who happened to be there was saying that her parents were having a problem with ethanol on their farm, because the waste was fermenting and creating this ethanol that they didn’t know what to do with.

    I don’t know much about it, but that seems like it would be a very green vehicle.

  • nobleea July 21, 2008, 12:04 pm

    So is this purely a commuting car? Could you take it on a longer trip (say 400 km) to the beach or the mountains? Is the generator strong enough to keep the batteries charged indefinitely, assuming the generator is fed with a constant supply of gasoline?

  • FT FrugalTrader July 21, 2008, 12:09 pm

    nobleea, with the gm volt, you can get 50mpg if it runs on generator only. So yes, providing that you keep gasoline in the car, the generator can keep the batteries charged indefinitely.

  • kerry bradshaw July 21, 2008, 12:24 pm

    The Prius isn’t even remotely as efficient as the Volt in terms of avoiding carbon emissions or gasoline. Do the simple calculations using DOT commuter trip distribution data and you’ll find that : 1) a 100 car fleet of Prius commuters will consume around 80 gallons of gasoline per day commuting, 2) a 100 vehicle fleet of commuting Volts will require less
    tha 10 gallons, even if none recharge at the workplace,
    Allow for 1/4th to recharge and the Volt fleet will use less than 5 gallons of fuel and achieve a commuting MPG of 570MPG. The Prius obtains 40 MPG. Any claims that the Prius is competitive with the Volt in terms of either carbon reduction or gasoline avoidance are absurd.

  • Daniel July 21, 2008, 12:32 pm

    Now here is a Canadian company working with electric only vehicles. http://www.zenncars.com/ Their current model is too slow and small for my needs but in 2009 they plan to launch a new model that will be highway capable vehicle with a top speed of 125 KPH/ 80 MPH and a
    range or 400 kilometers.

    I will definitely look into this option next year. And also to investing into this company.

  • Quincy July 21, 2008, 12:53 pm

    kerry bradshaw:

    Keep in mind that by the time the Volt comes out, the 3rd-generation plug-in Prius will be out too, and it WILL have similar capabilities as the Volt because it will also be upgraded to Lithium-Ion technology– 40 miles on a single charge.

    AND, the 3rd-Gen Prius will cost about $30,000, compared to the Volt’s $40,000.

    Sorry, the Volt loses here too.

  • AndyBuck July 21, 2008, 1:42 pm

    @Andrea

    Non-cellulose ethanol is not a ‘green’ substitute for gasoline. That’s the current technology used for creating ethanol from corn or other farm products. The amount of energy you have to use in order to obtain the ethanol is actually more than the energy the ethanol would obtain for you. Not to mention we could be doing other things with these products… like eating them.

    However, there is a lot of research going into producing ethanol from cellulose in general. Cellulose is the basic ingredient in the cell walls of plants. What the research is trying to do is to use parts of the plant – corn stalks, straw, etc – that would otherwise be burned or discarded by farmers and turn that into ethanol. This is still in its infancy and is not yet ready at an industrial scale.

    On the down side though, using plant material for fuel would lead to an increase in fertilizer use because much of that plant matter would otherwise be used to naturally enrich the soil. So, ultimately, ethanol from plants is most likely not the ‘green’ alternative that our politicians continually tell us.

  • MikeG July 21, 2008, 1:44 pm

    Hrm.. paying $40,000 for a vehicle that costs $300 in fuel costs. It will probably cost more to maintain, and will rapid lose value cause you’d be an early adopter…

    Vs. Pay $15,000 for a 2007 Manual Corolla, spend about $1500 a year on fuel. Likely less on maintenance costs, depreciation and insurance.

    Just my take on the situation.

    -MikeGraf

  • Traciatim July 21, 2008, 1:50 pm

    @AndyBuck:

    “That way the 110V outlet can be stepped up to 220V and run at 11A, not requiring any special outlets.”

    You can’t plug an extension cord in to an outdoor outlet already on most North American homes and then in to a transformer to step up to 220 and have the same amperage at the other end, you’d be creating power from nothing.

    If your outside plug is running 110V and can pull a max of 15A and then you step up the voltage to 220V you are now sending 7.5A (a little less, because you’d lose some in the conversion) down the wire after the transformer . . . if it pulled 15A still at 220V your breaker would trip for the plug.

  • AndyBuck July 21, 2008, 2:07 pm

    @Traciatim

    Man, I needed a coffee before 11am.

    Good call, I always endorse creating energy out of nothing though!

    Even at 12A, you looking at a charging time (assuming a great efficiency):

    16000W / 110V / 12A = ~12.5H

    Now, I probably wouldn’t end up charging it completely every night, nor would the software on the vehicle allow for a full discharge (safety), so this is probably a higher than normal figure.

  • Cow July 21, 2008, 3:21 pm

    I’ve been wanting plug-in hybrids or plug-in vehicles for a long time. Living in Vancouver means most of the Canada winter problems don’t really apply, plus almost all our power is hydroelectric, and most of what I want a car for is in-city driving anyway. (I currently live off public transit and our local car co-op.)

  • Maiku July 21, 2008, 7:22 pm

    @MikeG

    I somewhat doubt that the maintenance costs would be higher on an all-electric vehicle. Due to vast reduction of moving parts there is less likelihood of parts needing to be replaced (and oil changes would be a thing of the past). The major item in need of replacing would be the batteries. And therefore, whether maintenance is more expensive would depend on the lifespan and cost of the batteries.Having said that, I realize that this car also has a gasoline generator and so you could still be right.

    On an unrelated note: There are groups all around Canada that already convert combustion engine cars into electric. The chapter in Vancouver is at http://www.veva.bc.ca/

    Why can’t we just get that electric generator that powers a whole city from a glass of water off the movie “Chain Reaction” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115857/) ? That would solve everything :)

  • Gates VP July 22, 2008, 1:34 am

    Hey FT;

    More math nerds here: Assume 20,000 km driven / year,… OK, 20,000 km ~= 12,000 @ 40 miles / day = 312.5 days of travel at the maximum distance. Of course, most of us get 100+ weekend days without the daily commute :)

    So the number you quote is effectively the extreme possibility of savings. Now don’t get me wrong, the Volt seems like a pretty cool car, but it still costs more than the median Canadian annual salary. As mentioned above, it’s also not very “Canada-friendly”. Then again, most people don’t fully understand what it means to have high of -38 for two straight weeks :)

    My beef, why are we making the cheapest car so expensive? It’s like the first Hybrid (Prius). Instead of adding 20k to a 50k truck and making it much more fuel efficient, they added 15k to a 15k small car and made it difficult to afford. And this car has further limitations! Unless it has a full-sized gas-tank, this 40k beast will have less features than my 15k sub-compact.

    It’s the “Smart Car” problem all over again. The Smart ForTwo is mildly more fuel efficient, but costs 50 more than a similarly equipped Hyudai. Except, it’s only half a car! I’m paying more money for less car b/c it’s 15% more fuel efficient?!?

    Honestly, it’s all a step in the right direction, but it’s only solving parts of the problem. Yes we’re off-loading electrical requirements “to the grid”, but I’m actually happy to see they still have a “long-range” fuel supply. I’d personally like to see that supply become hydrogen, but maybe that’s next.

    An engineer doesn’t see the glass as half full or half empty, it’s simply twice as large as it needs to be.

    FT, I’m sure that you can appreciate this humour.

    I think the bigger picture is that we may be attacking the wrong problem. The root of the transportation/gas problem is that we drive 6000 lbs vehicles (an F150) with 300 lbs of cargo. Heck even the darling Civic weighs in at 2600 lbs. So somewhere between 85 & 95% of the gas we’re using is spent on moving the vehicle (not us). Plus we’re expending extra gas to keep the over-large cabin hot/cold.

    We’re spending all types of effort trying to save gas, but gas isn’t the crux of the problem, it’s weight. If we could halve the weight of every commuter vehicle on the road we’d save nearly half of the gas. Don’t get me wrong electric cars are a great boost, but they’re just offloading the inevitable problem that we’re expending too much energy just getting around.

  • AndyBuck July 22, 2008, 11:36 am

    Gates,

    That is the crux of the problem. We have been able to increase the efficiency of internal combustion engines greatly. However, every time we do, the cars get larger or must be sportier or otherwise take that gain and mitigate it. It’s a marketing issue. The general public doesn’t want a more efficient car, they want a faster car, or a bigger car that seems more safe.

    (Geek Alert) There was a great episode of NOVA on a few weeks ago where they went to these electric car shops and saw what they were doing. Cars like the Tesla Roadster (currently being delivered to customers – $100k USD) replace as many steel and aluminum parts with carbon fiber. In fact, there is a location in the US called the FiberForge that is currently working on a car made completely out of carbon fiber. As this technology progresses it will become more cost effective to create more and more parts out of carbon fiber, decreasing the mass of a vehicle and greatly increasing the efficiency. In fact, the prototype they have developed is claimed to: ‘… cruise on the highway at 55 miles an hour on the same power to the wheels that today’s SUVs use on a hot day to run the air conditioner’

    The whole episode is available online here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/car/open/

    It is really worth a watch! It shows there are people headed in the right direction.

  • Andrew July 22, 2008, 4:38 pm

    I am part of a campaign aimed at General Motors to become Green Motors and become a hybrid/electric car manufacturer. Check it out here: http://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/save-general-motors-and-the-planet-at-the-same-time

    General Motors is falling apart, losing billions, and in jeopardy of going out of business. If we can convince them that there is a viable market for them taking drastic action to convert their cars and trucks to being the most environmentally efficient in the world, they have nothing to lose by unconditionally embracing the green movement.

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