I got to test drive the Chevy Volt last week. I thought I’d follow up by writing a column about electric cars and their arrival. Enjoy!
Volt: Test-driving the comeback car
By Matt Dernoga
I found myself behind the steering wheel of General Motors’ highly anticipated Volt, driving around the campus last Wednesday. The Volt is a plug-in hybrid car with a battery that powers the car for up to 40 miles combined with a gas engine with a range of 300 miles if you need it. It was pretty sweet.
Just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have expected it. I remember the famously depressing 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? that took a look at what forces were responsible for the demise of the EV1, a fast, highly efficient electric car that was produced in the early 1990s. Since then, gas prices rose to painful levels, our oil dependence became a major environmental and national security issue, and automakers finally figured out you can go green and still make green.
After test-driving the Volt and reading about Nissan’s all-electric 100 mile-range “Leaf,” I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that electric cars are here to stay. Both these cars are mainstream and coming out near the end of this year. Throw all the electric car stereotypes out the window. After a $7,500 tax credit from the federal government for these advanced battery vehicles, the prices are in the range of ordinary, gas-powered sedans. The Volt accelerated with ease, so highway speed will be no problem. The average daily commute of 75 percent of Americans is 40 miles or less, meaning the ranges on both cars will cover the majority of our trips. Special outlets for charging aren’t necessary, just an outlet and an extension cord.
Part of the appeal is how cheap it is to buy the electricity to power the car versus buying gas. For example, fully charging the battery of the Volt will cost the average American less than a dollar a day. Last time I looked, a gallon of gas around here had come close to $3 and was climbing. Charging a battery could be even cheaper if you do it in off-peak hours with a utility company that offers variable pricing based on real-time electric demand. This is typically at night when few appliances are at use, and electricity is dirt cheap.
The presumption that most of us would charge our cars at night, when electricity demand is low and prices are cheap, is important. One criticism of electric cars is they’ll likely be powered by dirty energy, or add so much new demand to the grid that we’ll have to build more power plants. The reality is the electric power grid has a large amount of generated but unused electricity every night that goes to waste. Much of the added demand from electric cars to the grid would just take advantage of energy that would ordinarily go to waste anyway.
I think President Barack Obama’s goal of a million plug-in cars on our roads by 2015 is too low. This technology is here now, it’s affordable and if we’re going to move away from oil, the electric car is our best bet. We need to invest more in the technology so we dominate this emerging industry, and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.
It’s very fitting that a new documentary is in the works titled Revenge of the Electric Car. Success for these new vehicles would be sweet revenge.
Matt Dernoga is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at dernoga at umdbk dot com.