Here are some exerpts of an an interview by Todd Miller with Chelsea Sexton of "Who Killed the Electric Car" on SFGate.com
Todd: So they weren't that smart, and they weren't that stupid.
Chelsea: Pretty much. Yeah. The auto industry is a funny thing anyway. There's a historical notion of the policies of the auto industry depending a lot on who's in power at the time and whether it's a car person or a bean counter.
Business and marketing around this technology has always struggled. It struggled on EV1. It's struggling on the Volt. And that's the piece that remains to be seen if GM's going to be able to get past. The Volt is a good car. No one doubted it would be a good car. And EV1 is a good car.
We know they can build good cars. It's can they do the rest of it? Can they market them well? Can they get behind them? Can they really accept this technology as part of their portfolio in a way that demonstrates this is indeed their figure, at least part of their future?
Todd: Despite everything that's happened, despite the movie and despite the crash of the big auto companies, in spite of everything, the Volt still strikes me as kind of an advanced test. It's a production electric car, sort of a reverse hybrid. But I still kind of get the sense that they're kind of wait and see how this car performs in the market, and I think one of my concerns is that there's still the potential for them to look at this and look at soft demand for an expensive hybrid electric car in a soft market and say, "Well, look. We told you so. There wasn't any demand for the EV1, and there's not a heck of a lot of demand for the Volt either despite all the tax incentives."
Chelsea: I worry about the Volt failing. I worry about it for different reasons. It's more that as a proponent of the technology, I know the technology will be held responsible for all of the early efforts to commercialize it, whether it's the Volt or the Leaf for the Mini E or whatever.
So any of these programs that fail will be a black mark for plug-in vehicles. And there is absolutely an assumption of, well, gosh, if Nissan can't do it, GM can't do it or whatever, then it must not be ready for prime time. There are nuances with respect to GM on that because right now GM's not seen as being able to do an electric car in a sincere way.
So if the Volt is the only one that fails, that effect will be mitigated by the fact that it was GM. I think the genesis of the Volt started off in that same place that you talk about. There was an internal dialog in the company about whether to do a pure EV, and now there are certainly leaders at the top who said -- relative top -- who said, "You know I think the market is limited for a pure EV. And maybe we oughtta aim at something a little broader."
So on one hand, yes I think they were hedging some bets. On the other hand, I think they were trying sincerely to make sure they picked something that had the best chance of success knowing that people would be cynical about the fact that it was them doing it.
Todd: Let's talk about the Volt. I understand the EV1 was a prototype, and the Volt is a production car. But from my lay perspective, in some ways it seems like a leap backwards compared to the EV1 in terms of still being tethered to an internal combustion umbilical cord. And the Volt seems to have a relatively modest electric range of about 40 miles. It seems as though GM is trying to straddle the fence between the commitment to a pure plug-in electric car versus a plug-in hybrid. In some ways, the Volt sort of seems like a little bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption compromised between the two.
Chelsea: It is indeed probably the most complicated way to go about this. I actually categorize the EV1 as a production car. And while GM has wanted to revise history, at the time, it was considered a production car. And in fact, GM talked about it as the most aerodynamic production car ever made.
There is definitely a difference in terms of volume and resources dedicated to the Volt. And that's just the main difference between the last generation and this generation in general.
But with respect to the difference between the EV1 and the Volt, on one hand, GM really approached the Volt as, "Now let's do a real car." And by that I mean, not something hand-built, but a real production line and in a real-volume factory. In this case, they can do up to 250,000 Volts a year if they really wanted to in that factory.
So there is a difference in attitude that is more serious, but the configuration really stems from desire to give consumers an all-electric experience, and I think that's why they went that sort of more serial route than a parallel plug-in hybrid.
They could have cut the battery in half and done a 40-mile parallel plug-in hybrid and called it a day and had it look more like a Prius. But I think they recognized the desire for an all-electric experience, but also really saw it -- they definitely see this range-anxiety thing.
And I think they're right on picking roughly 40 miles in this configuration rather than 60 or 80 or whatever. And we have this debate all the time among the stakeholders of what's the magic number of miles. And for now, given the cost of battery technology, even outside of GM, most of us kind of come down on the 20 to 60 mile range.
And that it'll probably shake out there somewhere. And anything below 20 becomes too little range to be useful, and anything above 40 or maybe 60 becomes carrying around an extra battery pack that you're not generally going to use. Because if you're gonna have gas on board or something else anyway, there's no reason to carry extra batteries and therefore extra cost.
And that's really what it comes down to. So what's the minimum number of batteries you can stick on a car, keep it as cheap as possible, but give consumers enough range they see it as legitimate. And that's the balance I think GM was trying to strike in that.
Todd: What would the US look like, and what would the US auto industry look like today had GM and the automakers had not killed their electric cars back in the '90s?
Chelsea: I think it's probably safe to say the industry and certainly GM would be a whole lot healthier right now. Any of us that were realistic wouldn't pretend that it was a mass-market product back then. And in classic auto industry terms, it's probably not serving as a mass-market product now.
But electric vehicles probably would have enjoyed a trajectory very similar to hybrids. And when Honda and Toyota first started with Hybrids, their first year out combined, they sold something like 7,000 vehicles. I mean that would be a deal killer in the traditional automotive sense for any program.
But they went ahead and had a long enough vision that this was gonna go somewhere that they kept at it. And now it's to the point that hybrids never make headlines anymore. With a few of them, they can barely build enough.
And that's probably something along the lines of what would have happened with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. We would have had millions of them by now had we just kept at it. And with respect to the EV1 both Wagoner and Lutz have kind of said, "Yeah, it was a huge PR mistake to have done what we did."
Larry Burns is the only guy from GM that I know of that has publicly said, "It was a huge mistake because it cost us 10 years in terms of an engineering lead." He was VP of engineering, so I think he appreciated the facts more than some of the others.
But that's what really set them back. There were certain components they continued to work on, which was one of the main reasons they were able to get the Volt to market in four years instead of seven. But for the most part, they gave up their lead.