When the Chevy Volt electric car first hit the market a couple of years ago with a built-in gas tank to guard against range anxiety, its manufacturer GM had to wade through a torrent of abuse from the usual suspects. Despite the naysaying, the Volt has been a success and GM has been merrily tooting its own horn with reports of customer satisfaction. Not only that, but GM has succeeded in horning in on Tesla Motors’ latest publicity stunt. On April 3, just one day after Tesla CEO Elon Musk finally released his company’s much-anticipated “really exciting” mystery announcement, GM sent out word that Volt owners with regular access to charging stations were going an impressive 900 miles between fill-ups!
Why Build An EV With A Gas Tank?
When the Volt was first introduced, we got where GM was coming from. The company was counting on customers who wanted an all-American driving experience with a seamless, worry-free transition from gasoline to EV technology, so they designed a car that always runs off an electric drive, regardless of whether the fuel is gasoline from the Volt’s tank or electricity from its battery.
The Volt’s battery range is decent enough for daily commuting and errands but not particularly noteworthy. On the other hand, with the advantage of a built-in gas tank the Volt doesn’t need a high range (and therefore more expensive) battery, which is a major reason why GM can offer the Volt at a lower retail lower price than, say, the Tesla Model S.
GM also recently announced another couple of developments to attract price-conscious car buyers. Knowing that the typical Volt driver does use the gas tank at least occasionally, GM is working on improving the gasoline fuel efficiency of the car in forthcoming models, and rumor has it that the company also may start offering shorter (or longer) battery range options.
Time Is Money
It’s not quite obvious that GM is in a head-to-head showdown with Tesla for claim to the hearts and minds of U.S. EV buyers, but based on their latest announcements, the two companies appear to be going down that road.
Pick apart GM’s latest Volt press release, which features customer testimonials, and you’ll hear a familiar refrain. Nobody is talking about saving the planet or bragging about how far they can go on a single battery charge. What they’re talking about is time and money: how little time they spend waiting around at gas stations, and how much money they save on gas.
Similarly, after all the build-up to this week’s Tesla announcement, it turns out that the big news was all about money: a new financing plan that can effectively eliminate most or all of the down payment for a new Tesla, depending on state and federal incentives.
As for time, if you check out Tesla’s online cost calculator to figure out the “true” cost of owning a Tesla EV, you’ll see that one of the big factors is time.
The calculator asks you to factor in the time you save by using designated lanes during rush hour (where available), and the time you save from not having to wait around at gas stations.
Tesla time is probably a bit different from GM time, as the cost calculator defaults to $100/hour (not clear whether or not that’s before or after taxes and benefits), but you can adjust it to factor in your actual value.
Two Cars For The Price Of One
That brings us around to the big picture of EV affordability.
A while back it seemed that EVs were destined to be the second or third car in a multi-car household, used only for short drives within a local EV charging network.
Nowadays, manufacturers seem much more focused on ensuring that if you can only afford one car, it’s going to be an EV (and if you can afford more, the EV will still be your primary car).
GM expanded the market with the Volt, which is basically a two-in-one EV that can go indefinitely on electricity drive for local trips, and it can also go on an infinite road trip when called upon, at least wherever gas stations can be found.
Tesla seems determined to anticipate an extensive national charging network that will soon far outstrip the current availability of gasoline stations (we totally agree), so its two-in-one solution is a pure EV with a high-range battery.
Another kind of approach is illustrated by BMW, which has been toying with the idea of a stopgap plan that would provide purchasers of its new i3 EV with access to a rental car for out-of-town trips (no word yet on whether or not the rental would be complementary or discounted).
Probably the most intriguing offering comes from Ford, which has partnered with Eaton, SunPower, Whirlpool, Infineon, and smart thermostat pioneer Nest Labs to develop a system for integrating EV ownership into overall household energy use, just like any other large appliance.
The added benefit would be to cut down on electricity bills by charging the EV battery during off-peak hours when rates are cheaper, and then using the stored energy to power the house during peak periods.
Readers please note: I made a slight edit in the first paragraph to help clarify that 900 miles between fill-ups is not the same as 98 MPGe. If you read the thread below, you’ll see that several commenters noticed that the original version seemed to conflate the two. For more details you can check out GM’s press release.