Apr 05

An interview with GM’s Mike Robinson, VP for environment, energy and safety policy

 

Yesterday, we were fortunate to discuss GM’s commitment to sustainability, the Chevrolet Volt, and related topics with Mike Robinson, GM’s chief legal advocate for federal policies.

His formal title is Vice President for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy, but Robinson offered down-to-earth views on GM’s approach, challenges, goals, and concerns.

Having served as an Air Force officer from 1977-81, and earning his J.D. from Villanova Law School in 1984, that same year Robinson joined GM. Prior to accepting his present role in September 2009, he was the company’s vice president and general counsel for North America.


His perspective therefore comes from well before the “new GM.” As an advocate for the company’s mission to be a good corporate citizen, he plausibly represented GM in a positive light.

He spends more time with regulators, he said, than he does in front of legislative committees.

“One of my goals in life is to spend no more time in front of a congressional committee than necessary, and I say that tongue in cheek,” Robinson said, “We provide, deliver information we can to help policymakers understand issues, have a reasonable sense of the science associated with this.”

And just as GM’s corporate responsibility Web site is concerned, so also is Robinson with the public understanding of the company.

While GM’s rolling proof of its commitment – the Volt – is still just getting started in terms of customer deliveries, Robinson said it is already full-speed-ahead in building GM’s credibility.

“I view it more not that we’re changing ways or doing things better than we were before, but perhaps telling the story better for sure,” he said of post-bankruptcy GM, “I think quite honestly the Volt has opened so many eyes, that it gives us an opportunity – maybe even permission – to tell sort of the rest of the story that we weren’t able to tell when we were making some of the prior generation products, that people just couldn’t look past, to tell how we were operating as a company. So I want people to understand the rest of the story.”

The rest of the story for the international automaker, he said, is acting with a conscience to balance legal and ethical responsibilities with products that still entice customers to buy.

As an example of responsibilities he must contend with, Robinson clarified that while it is commonly thought the federal government has unified national environmental standards, really GM must work to harmonize three federal rule-making bodies: the EPA, which mandates CO2 emissions, the California Air Research Board, and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), operating under the purview of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

All three have separate charters, and each works under very specific guidelines mandating auto environmental regulations.

When not meeting regulators’ requirements, as a company first catering to paying customers, GM is essentially not putting all its eggs in one basket, Robinson said. It offers the Chevrolet Volt for those who can see the value, but also a wide array of technologies, with no alternative or green technologies yet ruled out.


Robinson, who works with about a dozen staff members, spends a fair amount of his time traveling to Washington to deal with all sorts of issues, including those affecting the Chevrolet Volt.

“We’re advocating for better fuel economy, but at the end of day, the customer will decide, this is the United States of America,” Robinson said, “it’s a free market, and people do get to make choices about what they will buy and how they want to spend their hard earned money.”

He spoke of a “value proposition that makes sense to them,” and thus earn their business.

“That’s why it is important to offer a variety of choices. Because I don’t think anyone’s got the silver bullet answer to anything yet,” Robinson said of environmentally friendly solutions, “We’re looking at all kinds of technologies. You know, fuel cell technology, and we certainly haven’t stopped producing flex fuel vehicles. There will be other technologies I’m sure as time goes forward.”

All this said, among the technologies GM has developed, Robinson is most enthusiastic about the Voltec platform.

“I would describe the Volt as not the end solution, but certainly a great bridge to get us where we all want to go,” Robinson said, while qualifying, “I love the vehicle. The most surprising thing about the vehicle to me, apart from the genius – and I use that word sparingly, but I use that in this case – apart from the genius of the technology itself is it really is incredible. The most surprising thing to me is the operation of the vehicle when you get inside the cockpit and you start to drive it.”

Robinson reminded us the extended-range Volt was created around studies showing 75 to 80 percent of people’s daily driving requirements could be handled by battery only range, and thus far, he said, GM was spot on.


GM’s 33,000-square-foot Global Battery Systems Lab – the largest automotive battery lab in the U.S. – opened June 8, 2009 at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Mich. The lab will accelerate advanced battery technology and expedite introduction of electrically driven vehicles, as well as plug-in hybrids, hybrid-electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles.

“The data is actually proving that out. I’ve taken a look at two of the earlier returns through OnStar. It’s almost smack on that ratio. Both during the week, and even on the weekend in terms of driving habits,” Robinson said, adding they’ll keep monitoring data, but, “I think the original theory behind the vehicle is holding up in terms of the driving patterns of the people that bought the vehicle so far, and are using it.”

Robinson said he’s had opportunity to introduce the Volt to all sorts of people from policymakers, to visitors from all over, and other VIPs.

“When you tell them to punch it, and really put the vehicle through its paces. They’re stunned at how well it handles,” Robinson said of the 3,700-pound car, adding that they almost always say something like, “’Hey! This is a real car.’ I think you cannot pay it a better compliment than that.”

But since no one knows the future, and GM is experimenting with all kinds of technology, we asked whether GM would consider a pure Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)?

“Sure. Yeah they’re considering that,” Robinson said, “And I will say that we’re considering it based on what the customer needs would be for the people that could best take advantage of, you know, the limits associated with a pure BEV.”

Would GM make this for the U.S. market or abroad?

“Both. Inside and outside the US,” Robinson said, “It would really be an urban vehicle. You wouldn’t need it to venture elsewhere. Or it would be a purely secondary vehicle.”

But what about the Voltec platform, we pressed. What new vehicles will we see coming with it?


Safety and design regulations are all part of Robinson’s legal oversight for GM.

As one might expect, GM’s legal VP did not spill any secrets, but he did hint around the edges.

“I will tell you that there’s certainly plenty of ideas and things under exploration … I will be very surprised if we don’t have Voltec technology on some other applications going forward.”

OK, that’s pretty apparent, but when, we asked. Soon? A couple years from now?

“I know this, that our people are anxious to find ways sooner rather than later to take advantage of this,” Robinson said, “We think this is a winner and we think this is a technology that people are clamoring for.”

The biggest challenge, Robinson said, involves developing efficiencies, and cutting costs without cutting quality.

“We are trying to drive cost out of everything we do,” he said citing GM CEO Dan Akerson who has said the same thing, “The Volt is very expensive to produce but we’re optimistic we’re going to get the cost down in every phase of the manufacturing and component cost of the vehicles.”

Part of this will come from assistance via non-contradicting government policies, Robinson said, now speaking again from his true area of expertise.

“And that’s everybody’s mandate; to make this technology as cost effective as possible so the customer gets a good value proposition. That’s a huge challenge, but it’s one we are going to step up to. But that’s true of all these technologies,” Robinson said, “It’s true of compressed natural gas, it’s true of fuel cells; these things cost money. And I’m worried, if you talk about the things that worry you. I worry about making sure we have coherent national policies that support these technologies, so we will be technological leaders and not followers around the world.”


GM is wide open to what ever shakes out in this grand technological experiment in which it finds itself to be a world player. (L to R) Cruze Z-Spec Concept, Volt Z-Spec Concept, Spark Z-Spec Concept, November 2010.

But, we asked, what do you say to free market advocates who say government mandates, policies, subsidies and incentives – on the consumer and manufacturing side – are an artificial crutch? Or to frame them positively, are they a necessary jump start to wean us from oil?

“My view of them is, as a matter of national policy, if it’s important for us to have less and less fossil fuel used in generating power, then it’s going to be a matter of national commitment. I mean you can’t just mandate the stuff. You have to have a coordinated, cohesive approach,” Robinson said, “Now if the goal for the country is to reduce by, let’s say, 80 percent the amount of CO2 that’s produced in our manufacturing and transportation, then you have to do some things to change that. And my expectation is that it’s not going to go away overnight, that’s for sure. But eventually my grandkids aren’t going to be driving internal combustion engine cars.”

OK, thank you, we said. We’ve heard similar things before, but it’s good to hear it coming from someone so close to the issues. To finish up, here’s a couple easy questions:

What do you like least about your job?

“It’s a character flaw. I have a real problem with bureaucracies. Internally that has not been an issue within GM believe it or not,” Robinson said, “I’ve never had big problems with that and especially with the new GM. I can tell what ever vestiges there may have been – from my standpoint anyway – there’s just none of that that I have to worry about. Unfortunately, when you deal with a lot of different constituencies in the government – that each have a legitimate point of view – getting stuff done takes a little longer than you’d like. I have to be patient and work through those things. Like I said there are a lot of legitimate points of view that have to be taken into consideration. Some times I get a little impatient, and I have to guard against that.”

And what do you like best about your job?

“The issues are so cutting edge, and they’re so timely, and they’re so important, how do you not get excited about coming to work every day?” Robinson asked, “I mean this is the most exciting stuff that anybody’s working on right? It’s what we can do to reduce our CO2 footprint in our plants, or to reduce the amount of energy we use there, or the amount of water we use there – or vehicles like the Volt – I mean this is a fun business, and these are tough issues, but we’re on the cutting edge, and that’s pretty exciting.”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011 at 5:55 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

COMMENTS: 31


  1. 1
    StevePA

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (6:39 am)

    Hmmm…compare the tone of this article, and where GM is today, to a few years ago…
    Seems the “bailout” of GM so decried by many is working out. Car manufacturing capacity, jobs and the profits from it all remain in the U.S. Union contracts somewhat more reasonable. Key new automotive technology being developed and produced here in the U.S. Taxpayers getting their money back – not all yet – but looking better that it will all be repaid. Do those pluses outweigh the loss to bondholders in the bankruptcy, or dents that process created in the legal system? For others to figure out, but to this taxpayer, looks like a good deal was struck.


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    Jim I

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (7:56 am)

    I just really wonder when we will hear about any new Voltec based models being announced!

    Four or five models by 2015 would really give most purchasers a choice to meet their needs.

    IMHO, that will tell us that GM is truly convinced that this is real, and not just a small niche.

    :-)

    NPNS

    Have Outlet – Ready For A Blue EREV In Ohio!!


  3. 3
    joe

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (8:23 am)

    I think it’s important to know, the road to GM success started 3 years before bankruptcy…something most are not aware of. The credit does not only go to the present management, but also goes to the old management. That’s why GM has made such a quick turn around. And the reason many lost their jobs was to appease the government and to change the public views of GM.


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    Mark Z

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (9:38 am)

    If GM will make the commitment to put Voltec models in each product line, they will sell well. All it takes is a test drive of the Volt to get the buyer excited. It’s now frustrating to drive any other car.


  5. 5
    Jeff Cobb

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (9:45 am)

    StevePA,

    For this article, as much as I could, I tried to keep myself out of it, and let Mike do as much of the talking as possible.

    If it is too long, sorry about that. I thought letting a member of GM’s executive management team have the floor was worth it this time.


  6. 6
    Jackson

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:38 am)

    Jeff Cobb:

    The site is stuck in italics.

    Mike Robinson,

    “It’s a character flaw. I have a real problem with bureaucracies.”

    Me too. I have a tendency to look for technological solutions to avoid political ones — not applicable in this case, alas; to the point that the Volt itself has become a source of political polarization.

    Let’s be clear: The Volt will succeed because it is better; not because of perceived political bias (that it does not deserve in fact), not because of carbon footprints, or the possibility of artificially mandated rises in the cost of gas. It will succeed, or not, only because it is currently the best choice for many, many buyers.

    It will all come down to buyer understanding.


  7. 7
    Noel Park

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:47 am)

    Jeff Cobb: If it is too long, sorry about that.

    #5

    It can’t be too long. Don’t even think about it. Knowledge is power. Another fantastic effort IMHO. Keep ‘em coming. Well done. +1


  8. 8
    Jeff Cobb

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:49 am)

    Jackson,

    I have an email into IT. Not sure why it’s stuck in italics. We’ll fix it.


  9. 9
    T 1

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:53 am)

    Jackson: Jeff Cobb:The site is stuck in italics.

    So, today we’re leaning to the right?


  10. 10
    Jeff Cobb

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:54 am)

    Noel Park,

    It’s still a debate in the publishing world, with most people siding with short reads. I could write, er, a lot on this subject … :)

    But in brief, there are a number of good and bad reasons for it. Some people can’t sit and stare at a screen for what ever reason.

    Others have said long-form journalism is not dead, and if done well, any writing should hold the reader. That is, of course, assuming the reader is interested in the topic.

    If I can get a higher-up to spend 40 minutes of his high-salaried time, and I transcribe all those notes, I will not usually want to short change the effort.


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    Jackson

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:59 am)

    Jeff Cobb:

    It’s still a debate in the publishing world, with most people siding with short reads. I could write, er, a lot on this subject …

    But in brief, there are a number of good and bad reasons for it. Some people can’t sit and stare at a screen for what ever reason.

    Others have said long-form journalism is not dead, and if done well, any writing should hold the reader. That is, of course, assuming the reader is interested in the topic.

    If I can get a higher-up to spend 40 minutes of his high-salaried time, and I transcribe all those notes, I will not usually want to short change the effort.

    Consider writing your short lead in the blog, with a link to the long form in the forums.

    If you do this, (not sure how you would), all comments should still show up in the blog.

    BTW, what does the html tag “em” mean? It doesn’t appear to do a heck of a lot, but the blog is now suddenly inserting them. Could have something to do with constant italics and no bolding?


  12. 12
    BLIND GUY

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (12:17 pm)

    With the tug-of-war constantly going on in our government; for the direction of our country. How can you deal with all the red tape and bulls**t involved when dealing with government policy and regulations? I would strive to exceed government expectations; not just meet them. Imo, GM should get to their Gen. II EREV ASAP with design changes and cost savings in place before using EREV in other models. I would like to see an E-assist possibly with direct injection added to the Cruise; to compete with the Prius. I know the Cruise alternator is more efficient than usual but E-assist would be great. Imo traditional starters are so out-dated; when you can have 1 component do the job of 3 components: starter, alternator/generator, electric motor assist.


  13. 13
    Jeff Cobb

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (12:23 pm)

    Jackson,

    em means italics.


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    Noel Park

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (12:23 pm)

    Jeff Cobb: Others have said long-form journalism is not dead, and if done well, any writing should hold the reader. That is, of course, assuming the reader is interested in the topic.

    If I can get a higher-up to spend 40 minutes of his high-salaried time, and I transcribe all those notes, I will not usually want to short change the effort.

    #10

    Right and right again IMHO.

    “Onward, forward, never backward” – Peter Tosh


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    Jackson

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (12:24 pm)

    BLIND GUY: With the tug-of-war constantly going on in our government; for the direction of our country. How can you deal with all the red tape and bulls**t involved when dealing with government policy and regulations

    Our government has become something we work around (or end up doing nothing).

    T 1: So, today we’re leaning to the right?

    Apparently. ;-)

    Lord knows we go the other way often enough. :-(


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    Apr 5th, 2011 (12:27 pm)

    Jeff Cobb:
    Jackson,

    em means italics.

    Well, you learn something every day!


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    N Riley

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (12:33 pm)

    It was a good read, but did we find anything out different than we had already known? I think not. But, thanks Jeff. Every interview may help glean another gem that we can put together to get the “big picture”.


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    Apr 5th, 2011 (1:48 pm)

    N Riley,

    GM-Volt’s core readership may not have learned much new. Others gaining interest in the Volt may have learned something. Hearing it all from a GM exec can’t hurt either.


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    Apr 5th, 2011 (1:58 pm)

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (1:59 pm)

    test!


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    N Riley

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (2:27 pm)

    Jeff Cobb:
    N Riley,

    GM-Volt’s core readership may not have learned much new. Others gaining interest in the Volt may have learned something. Hearing it all from a GM exec can’t hurt either.

    You have a valid point. One I did not take time to consider. Thank you for reminding me.


  22. 22
    John W

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (3:46 pm)

    Love it.


  23. 23
    Tom Thias

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (5:01 pm)

    The True Cost To Drive The Awsome 2011 Chevrolet Volt…..!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Local Utility-Board Of Water And Light
    Lansing Michigan.

    Cost to full charge Volt……………………$1.20 Per Day

    ( http://www.lbwl.com/PEVintro.pdf )

    Volt Range 25-50 Miles On A Charge-Av 40 mls A Day= 1200 Mls A Month.

    Gas Vehicles Average MPG 20 City/Hwy Combined

    Cost Of Gas At 40 mls A Day @ $3.75/ Use $4.00 Gallon = $8.00 Per Day…

    Cost Of Gas Per Month…………………………….$240.00 !!!

    Cost of Electricial Charging Per Month………….$36.00 !!!!!!!!

    Net Saving Driving Volt Formula…………………….$240.00 Gas
    -$36.00 Electric

    Net Savings….. $204.00 Not Spent

    Cost To Lease..Chevrolet.com $380.00 W/ State Use Tax
    – $204.00 Net Propulsion Savings

    Net Cost to Drive Monthly Offset $176.00 Per Month…….AWSOME !!!!!!!!

    Challenge This NaySayers…………….!!!


  24. 24
    srschrier

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (6:41 pm)

    Tom Thias,

    Let’s hope updated generations of the Voltec platform can safely be manufactured at a lower cost to make the technology affordable to more customers. A “Model-T” (modern cost equivalent) version of the Voltec platform, if technically possible, might provide more incentives.

    Another recent issue is proposed legislation that would tax the owners of electrically powered vehicles for their use of public roads as a way to offset lost “gas tax” revenues.


  25. 25
    Noel Park

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (7:10 pm)

    Tom Thias: Net Cost to Drive Monthly Offset $176.00 Per Month…….AWSOME !!!!!!!!

    #23

    Not having to stop at the !@#$% gas station………PRICELESS!!!!!!!!! +1


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    Eco_Turbo

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (7:12 pm)

    srschrier,

    Between the flat tax, which if set to 23%, would be about a three times increase in revenue for the government, and a tax per mile driven, which who knows how much of an increase in revenue that would produce, the government seems poised to collect a huge windfall in the not too distant future.


  27. 27
    Dan Petit

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (8:56 pm)

    Mike Robinson is involved with the environmental issues to inform various agencies.

    I had chatted with LauraM recently about how badly the sunlight hurts my skin when a cold front comes in from the Arctic when the sky is blue. I had called upon the pros who publish at Science Daily who know more about this to help us out with more detailed information.

    Over in Science Daily right now, the lead topic is a massive, deeply-depleted ozone hole to cover Scandinavia, and without sunblock protection, people can get a sunburn in minutes. MINUTES!
    (Movements of the depleted area influenced by the jet stream means this sort of thing could randomly go many other places in the Northern Hemisphere including into the US some day.)
    This serious scenario ought to provide Mike Robinson with the strongest of compelling persuasiveness to convince anyone that electric motoring needs their complete backing. NOW.


  28. 28
    Dan Petit

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (9:32 pm)

    One quick note further,
    The article stated that children were most at risk.
    All you news agencies ought to pick up on that story as you are supposed to be attentive to the public good.
    I’d like to know if someone makes some sort of uva, and uvb exposure meter.
    Something like that would be a good thing to have in any vehicle.
    We have all kinds of weather maps. This qualifies as a weather hazard, don’t you think?


  29. 29
    Jackson

     

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (10:10 pm)

    Dan Petit:
    One quick note further,The article stated that children were most at risk.
    All you news agencies ought to pick up on that story as you are supposed to be attentive to the public good.I’d like to know if someone makes some sort of uva, and uvb exposure meter.
    Something like that would be a good thing to have in any vehicle.
    We have all kinds of weather maps.This qualifies as a weather hazard, don’t you think?

    I do find it remarkable that there isn’t some kind of portable sunburn alarm (UV dosimeter) on the market. It isn’t hard to find a radiation detector (with a real Geiger Muller tube) on the Internet; but I don’t know if a consumer-level UV detector is even made.

    Attention, inventors; the portable UV detector should be iPod nano-size, with peak and total exposure modes for each wavelength (It would not only respond to UV light instantaneously, but would track overall exposure over time).

    EDIT: Um, could I retract all of that?

    http://www.reliabilitydirectstore.com/Reliability-Direct-MS-98-Ultra-Violet-Detector-p/rdi-ms98.htm?gclid=CPCW2d3ohqgCFQla7AodDynNdw
    ;-)


  30. 30
    Dave K.

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    Apr 5th, 2011 (11:00 pm)

    Tom Thias: The True Cost To Drive The Awsome 2011 Chevrolet Volt

    Gas prices in Santa Barbara this week…

    VoltSBgasapril411.jpg?t=1302058467

    I have 2723 miles on Volt #555. 2445 are on lithium ion battery. 278 miles are on the gasoline generator. Gasoline generator mpg is 39.1 with a lifetime of 383.5 mpg. Just 7.1 gallons of gasoline in 2723 miles.

    =D-Volt


  31. 31
    EVO

     

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    Apr 6th, 2011 (1:44 am)

    I had a fun conversation at the charging station this evening with the person, let’s say we call them G, parked one spot up in a non-charging spot. I was charging a converted plug in hybrid.
    ___

    G: How often do you have to do that?

    A: What, park? Every time I go inside or the car is stopped. How often do you have to park?

    G: Oh. Umm.. about the same amount, I guess. No, I meant how often do you have to charge it?

    A: I don’t have to charge it at all. This also can use just gas as long as I want or pretty much any mix of gas and electric. But so long as I’m going shopping right now, why not let it top itself off at electric rates?

    G: Ummm. I don’t know. I guess that does make sense. Ya know, my car uses enough gas, enough that I could probably have spent enough that I could have used for a downpayment on an electric in a couple of years.

    A: Yes, you probably have spent a downpayment on an electric drive vehicle, hybrid or plug in, in your gas use over two years.

    G: Yeeeah. I’m going to get one … those electrics.

    A: Ummmm,,,, yeah, I guess that makes sense.

    G: Yeah, its good for the planet.

    A: I don’t care about that. I like the torque so I can beat Vipers off the line.

    G: That’s weird. Well, bye…
    ___

    When it goes big, the transition is going to be like falling off a log…

    When people see things like the Volt in use, and it works better than their own set up, the lights start to go on.