So what is it like to actually drive the Chevy Volt plug in hybrid electric car?

me and the "Voltkeeper"This post introduces guest blogger Chelsea Sexton, my friend and costar of the 2006 documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”  At a young age, Chelsea began working for GM marketing their ill-fated electric car, the EV1.  She even married an EV1 service technician!  Now she serves as the Executive Director of Plug In America (full bio here).  So when he was offered a chance to test drive the centerpiece of GM’s effort to revive the electric drive, she jumped.  This post was first published on her newly minted blog.

Plug-ins and electric cars, of course, are a core climate solution, since electric drives are more efficient, easily powered by carbon-free energy and indeed far cheaper to operate per mile than gasoline, even when running on renewable power. And they are the key alt-fuel strategy needed to deal with the energy/economic security threat of rising dependence on imported oil and the inevitably grim impacts of peak oil (see “Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence“).  I think the Volt was overdesigned (see “CMU study suggests GM has wildly oversized the batteries in the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid“), but very much hope it succeeds.  I say that even though GM’s executive “champion” of the Volt — the inane global warming denier, Bob Lutz, remains stuck in a fatally wrong view about EVs and the future of cars, saying in a long but dreadful Washington Post article, that the Chevy Volt “is an important symbol. We need it. It has a chance to change our image.”  Yes, Bob, that’s what the car is all about, symbolism.  Can someone fire him, already?

But I digress.  The rest of this post is Sexton describing the story of her test drive.

From the first Volt unveiling over two years ago, I’ve wanted to drive one. At some point last year, Tony Posawatz’s [the vehicle line director for the Chevy Volt] first words upon seeing me ceased to be “Hey, chels”, and became “I know, I know”. Given the history, I’ve all but made a nuisance of myself for this company, seeking evidence of their sincerity about doing another plug-in car- “fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice” and all of that. I eventually came to believe they mean it, but I haven’t been sure that they really “get it” when it comes to what people love about electric cars- worrisome when they’re staking the future of the company on another one. That they still trash the EV1 to make the case for the Volt doesn’t help- beyond the fact that they are different cars meant for very different markets.  While the EV1 wasn’t flawless, it became the benchmark of what GM was capable of in both engineering and consumer passion. As a result, they’re now known for building a car people are willing to get arrested for- no small act to follow. And at a time when the company is fighting just to survive, I wouldn’t be the only one wondering if the Volt would be nickel-and-dimed to a shadow of its potential.

So when I got a surprise call a few Fridays ago inviting me to fly to Detroit for a test drive, I hopped a red-eye and was there- with “Revenge of the Electric Car” film crew in tow, of course. If the Volt drive wasn’t enough, the Milford Proving Grounds is like Disneyland to a girl like me (though my description of it being filled with gearhead porn made my hosts blush a little!) After a quick tour of the property, we arrived at the section of course that had been closed for us. Standing in the middle of nothing but alternating stripes of grass and road, was a white Chevy Cruze emblazoned with large blue “Volt” graphics, like the smallest kid standing on his toes for the class picture.

Next to the car was Frank Weber [Global Vehicle Line Executive, Chevrolet Volt], looking more proud and hopeful than I’ve ever seen. Self-described with the statement “I am German, I am an engineer- I do not feel”, Frank has always seemed pessimistic to me against the aspirational backdrop of the Volt team- but even he couldn’t completely disguise his thrill at finally having something functional to show after two years of talking. I’d had enough of the talking, myself- so with little fanfare, I was pointed toward the track and let loose. After the first few of many laps, Jim, “the Voltkeeper” who tended the car all day from a technical standpoint, asked if might stop smiling anytime soon. I think Frank just wondered if all EV people drive that fast”¦

I drove the Volt off and on all day long (stopping not because the car needed to, but because we were also interviewing GM folks in-between driving segments). It is more refined than many production cars I’ve driven, a fact that ironically breeds impatience- it’s hard not to drive it and think, “oh, this is fine, let’s just get on with production already”. It’s also the quietest full-performance plug-in I’ve seen so far- they must’ve beaten every bit of motor whine out of that car, because it sounds more docile than it is. It’s incredibly smooth, and very solid-feeling, even on the intentionally rough proving ground roads. Because it’s still a mule, Frank assured me that the car is only at about 80% of the final version’s performance capability, and that the extra bit of low-end torque I came away wanting would be there. While the acceleration is quite good (0-60 in 9 seconds), I was admittedly spoiled by the “off the line” performance of GM’s last EV, and the Volt doesn’t quite have the initial surge I was expecting as its progeny.

In fairness, the Volt can’t rightfully be compared to the EV1 (I myself have badgered GM not to do it) but I am aware that it and the other EVs of the 1990s are the frame of reference for many folks. I will say simply that this is not that. It is not a hand built car, so lacks all of the quirks, noises, and yes- individuality- that implies. Undoubtedly, some will be disappointed by that fact- but GM is clearly betting that the masses will be thrilled by it. Most folks love what they can do with the iPhone but don’t give a rip about what’s actually inside. It’s the functionality and flexibility that allows personalization and is most appealing; I suspect a similar line of thinking is informing the Volt.

I also failed to talk the guys into letting me drive the Volt in range-extended mode- I’d really been hoping to put to rest all the conjecture that because no one’s been allowed to drive it that way, there must be something wrong with it. Alas, Frank was typically insistent that it just wasn’t ready. I persisted, assuring him I’m familiar with pre-production systems, but he remained stoic, until I finally pinned him- “what is so wrong with this car that you won’t let anyone drive it with the engine on?” He paused, and admitted almost sheepishly, “well, when the engine comes on, you can hear it.” I kept waiting for more, but that was it-the big mystery”¦ you can hear the engine. I started to note how that would be, oh, I don’t know, standard for an internal combustion engine in any car and that some people prefer it that way, but I was chastened by my own admiration for the position he took. While there’s absolutely a point where you have to stop engineering and start building, Frank’s statement is indicative of the attention to detail being paid to the Volt.

That said, some of the other folks working with the other mules found out we were there and “happened” to drive by a few times, in range extended mode- the thing is already Prius quiet. And because the generator operates within certain distinct “power bands” depending on the driver’s right foot (more power requested, higher the band- if the request is at the lower end of any band, the extra energy is fed back into the batteries) any detectable sound should directly correlate with attendant ambient and road noise. Can’t speak firsthand on the power of the generator- it is on spec certainly enough to keep up with all but the heaviest loads, but time–and my next test drive–will tell.

After I’d looped myself dizzy and exhausted the car, we went over to the Tech Center to interview Tony Posawatz about the latest status of the program and how it’s been affected by GM’s current economic situation. The Volt is Tony’s baby (I actually watched his eyes well up when the production concept rolled out on the platform at the 100-yr anniversary), so I expected him to be upbeat, and he was–they’ve been hiring for the Volt program, and are otherwise keeping noses down and trying not to worry about the political noise- they have a car to build. And as if to prove it, he pointed to a digital clock on the wall in plain view to the core team- it counts down to the minute the amount of time til the next milestone: the day they start building the first 80 “actual” Volts. Just in case someone takes his eyes off the ball. The date is now just a few days away, and everyone knows it. These will still be prototypes, but they’ll be in the right body and one step closer to production. My inner MacGuyver is already plotting an “extended test-drive””¦It’s professional duty and all- someone’s gotta test that low-end torque.

Driving the Volt was a mix of experiences– it was a fun day, and it’s great to see spots of hope in Detroit from folks who are excited to be working on “something cool again” (their words). And let’s face it, it was also a relief–there were certainly some years there when I wasn’t sure they’d ever get even this far on a plug-in car again. But in the end, building the car won’t be their biggest challenge–it never has been. Whether they can get behind it effectively as it hits showrooms remains to be seen. And I remain repeatedly frustrated at watching them struggle to tell their own story, or when they allow, say, Bob Lutz to go on national television. I think they’re learning, but I wonder often if the wisdom will come fast enough–and at what cost.

I still don’t know that they entirely understand the nuances of passion people have for electric cars — but I do think that they understand just what’s at stake for this one. It is the end of the poker game for GM, and they’re all in.

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39 Responses to So what is it like to actually drive the Chevy Volt plug in hybrid electric car?

  1. What an excellent piece of writing!

    My guess is that for many people the important numbers won’t be about low-end torque, but the ones on the sheet of paper stuck to the window. Any idea yet what they’re planning to sell this thing for?

    [JR: With the tax credit, it’ll be around 40k, I think. Early production levels are pretty low. The Washington Post piece, while epically flawed, has some background on this.]

  2. Dennis says:

    One thing the Obama administration could do is change that sticker laws to add a five-year cost of ownership graph to the car (with, perhaps, several different gas price scenarios, e.g., $2/gal. $3/gal, etc.) and compare that to the fleetwide average. That would show potential buyers not just a direct price comparison of the cars, but a comparison of the cost of operating one from year to year.

  3. MikeB says:

    Does anyone know if there are plans to equip this vehicle with a bidirectional inverter?
    My understanding is that the ACPropulsion powered vehicles–Ebox, E Mini, maybe Tesla–have this capability.

  4. MikeB says:

    correction “Mini E

  5. I liked the line:

    “oh, this is fine, let’s just get on with production already”

  6. Wonhyo says:

    Chelsea’s review of the Volt sounds very encouraging. My main concerns are whether they can quickly drop the price, or follow up with a lower priced model. $40k puts the Volt up in Lexus/Infiniti territory, putting it out of reach of the majority of (indebted) Americans.

    I really wish mainstream media and climate/energy media outlets (like CP!) would pay more attention to Aptera. Yes, it looks different and is smaller than a conventional car, but at an expected price of $22k (after tax credit), it’s within reach of far more Americans. More importantly, it is the only current 80 mph electric car design that has embraced efficiency as its design driver. With the ability to go 100 miles on 10 kWhs of battery, it is four times as energy efficient as the Volt.

    Furthermore, the Aptera is closer to production. As of early this year, mass production of the all-electric was announced for October 2009, with the plug-in hybrid to follow a year later. Doesn’t Aptera deserve some more attention, especially from CP?

    In any case, I foresee a very interesting race for the electric/plug-in market. While Aptera has a wide lead in efficient subcompact (but fully highway capable) cars, it looks like there will be three contenders for the mid-size sedan market. The Chevy Volt is almost there. Tesla has hinted at plans for a sedan in the $50k range. Aptera has also hinted at plans for future mid-size car designs.

  7. K L Reddington says:

    The electric Mini cooper runs 2 hours and takes 5 hours to charge?

    In December, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a law mandating a 40 percent increase in fleetwide fuel economy by 2020, the first substantial change in three decades.

    GM has lost a lot of design and research money on electric. With people bashing their reputation, they may not sell well.

    As soon as electricity doubles in price, the savings will go in the negative column?

  8. Brewster says:

    The Volt price, as I understand it, will be $40,000 BEFORE the $7,500 rebate, making the final price $32,500. (Loaded)

    Since there’s always the people who must have the latest, they will sell like hotcakes

    But that’s just Phase 1 – The price should drop into the mid $20,000’s as production ramps up, and that’s where the general public will start buying in…

    K L Reddington – I have serious doubts that Electricity will double in price, but I am quite sure gasoline will increase to 3 times its present level.

  9. MikeN says:

    I think reddington is right about electricity price increases. If a carbon tax is put on coal, then prices jump to the solar nuclear wind level. The goal of the carbon tax is to price out coal.

  10. K L Reddington says:

    Input costs. Electricity will double. as we speak a railroad buys diesel to run electromotive locomotives. 50% of electricity is from coal. Natural gas will go up. It produces less electricity.

    [JR: No and no. Oil prices are going to more than double over the next decade or so. Electricity prices will continue their steady rise of the past decade and rise another 25% or so during that time. Electric cars per mile fuel cost will be 5 to 8 times cheaper than regular ICE cars.]

    When people wanted ethanol, corn prices went up when you see fertilizer prices 1,000 dolars a ton and shippjng, planting and harvesting also went up.

    All food has in it’s cost the price of energy. The exception is wild food.

    Volt sales will be very low.

    We have over a 6 month supply of the Toyota Prius. Sales crashed. 83.4% of Americans do not pay $7,500 in federal income tax. Not a big inducement.

    Ford Tauruis and Honda Accord will outsell the Volt by 8 to 10 times.

    With less dealers and escalating unemployment, the Volt will sell by reason of novelty. My family has a wide line of Gm in our dealership. I have an employe who owns a share in a Ford dealership. It is not difficult to get a handle on “new” products. Most hype regarding automotive comes from people outside the industry.

    GM also now has a tarnished brand name.

  11. Brewster says:

    I should probably put a time scale on my last post – 3-5 years.

    MikeN, whether or not electricity goes up or not, and how much, is irrelevant – oil will go up more – look at how fast it’s rising already at the first hint that the economy is turning around….

  12. Seth Masia says:

    Consensus over at The Oil Drum is that gasoline is headed for $4/gal over the next three years, and higher thereafter. If electric rates double to 22 cents per kWh, the typical heavy EV sedan will run at about 6 to 7 cents per mile, compared to a 25-mpg ICE sedan burning $4 gas at 13 cents per mile. The fuel saving pays for a $7000 price differential in 100,000 miles. I drive a car 250,000 miles. It’s a no-brainer. d last fall in Georgia and Florida, and more memorably nationwide in 1973-74), the EV driver gets to work on time.

  13. Seth Masia says:

    Sorry about the garble. Final sentence should read:

    Besides, when liquid fuel is in short supply at any price, as happened last fall in Georgia and Florida, and more memorably nationwide in 1973-74, the EV driver gets to work on time.

  14. K L Reddington says:

    I like the Mitsubishi product. It drives for 2 hours on 7 hours of charging time.
    My office building has a great attached parking garage. i am sure they will offer outlets. I have no idea what the price will be for a charge.

  15. Chaz says:

    Does anybody know what kind of emission control system is included on the Volt? Since it has a gasoline engine on it to run the generator, it will emit CO, NOx, and hydrocarbons. What emission level will the vehicle be certified to?


  16. Seth Masia says:

    A good short discussion of Volt tailpipe emissions is at — scroll down for it.
    Bottom line: a generator optimized for a steady engine speed can have lower tailpipe pollutant emissions than an engine that works to accelerate the car across a wide range of crankshaft speeds.

  17. Brewster says:

    Chaz, that’s a good question..

    I have been following the Volt closely, and haven’t heard that come up. I presume that means it would meet current and projected standards, but nothing special.

    Of course, there would be essentially no emissions while running on batteries, which should be most of the time.

  18. max says:

    I am a potential Volt buyer but I would not like to even indirectly help Bob Lutz enrich himself with my dollars.

  19. Brewster says:


    Your concept that the Volt engine, running at optimal speeds, should emit somewhat less than engines in ICE vehicles, but as your article states, so far the actual emissions controls are very much as any other equivalent auto engine.

  20. Brewster says:

    Need an edit function…

    The first section should read:

    I think that your concept is correct. The Volt engine, …

  21. paulm says:

    Whats going to happen when the black/brown outs start happening. Which they will when we start moving away from coal and everyone is driving a EV.

    I can see a potential for chaos developing in my looking glass.
    Is all about life style. We have to start reducing consumption.

  22. “Dennis Says:
    June 8th, 2009 at 7:37 am

    One thing the Obama administration could do is change that sticker laws to add a five-year cost of ownership graph to the car (with, perhaps, several different gas price scenarios, e.g., $2/gal. $3/gal, etc.) and compare that to the fleetwide average. That would show potential buyers not just a direct price comparison of the cars, but a comparison of the cost of operating one from year to year.”

    What a great idea, Dennis. We should get that started. Someone had the same thought when I wrote about the EV that Mitsubishi started production on last week.

    So many people jump down the cost of these first EVs not understanding that ongoing cost of gas.

    (Same problem with solar power too. People just do not see the big picture over the years; that they will spend at least $100,000 for electricity over the next 25 years if they stay with PG&E instead of putting in solar. It’s all such short term thinking.)

  23. Paulm,

    There is excess night time electricity supply now, enough to supply at least the first decade of electric cars.

    Here’s one of many studies that have consistently found that EVs won’t strain the grid. Even back in 2006 under the Bush DoE – like this one:

  24. K L Reddington says:

    “Despite claims that Americans turning their backs on gas-guzzlers have contributed to the present dire straits faced by GM and others, Toyota’s latest sales figures point to a stagnant market for more efficient Japanese models as well.

    Sales of the Prius in the US were down from 15,011 in May 2008 to just 10,091 for the same month this year. For the year to date, sales of the Prius in the US stand at 42,753 compared to 79,675 in 2008 – a drop of more than 45 per cent. ”

    We have a 9 month supply of prius cars.

  25. John Hollenberg says:

    > Sales of the Prius in the US were down from 15,011 in May 2008 to just 10,091 for the same month this year.

    Of course they were–people are waiting for the third generation to come out. The generation 3 cars will probably be in short supply for a long time. Toyota recently announced an increase from 400,000 to 500,000 Prius to be produced this year. Two of my family members plan to buy gen 3 Prius as soon as they are available. The new Honda Insight is also selling like hotcakes in Japan (not sure about U.S.).


  26. Jeff Botten says:

    I imagine the extra electricity is going to have to come mostly from coal-fired power plants.

    Coal is dirtier than gasoline so one would have to crunch all the numbers to ensure this is truly “better” for the environment.

  27. Rick Covert says:


    Even if the car is a hybrid the EV beats the the ICE car for CO2 emissions reductions. EV’s reduce C02 emissions by 11% to 100% over ICE cars and 24% to 65% compared to hybrids. Other emissions are reduced too with the exception of oxides of sulfur and that last exception can be adressed if the 1990 Acid Rain amendment to the Clean Air Act is enforced. Sherry Boshcert has a nice neat concise report on this at Look on page 3 for CO2 emissions.

  28. Andy says:

    Damn K L Reddington, why is Toyota selling less Prius’s during a global economic recession when gas prices dropped under $2/gal? I can’t figure it out!

    Everyone must be buying SUVs and monster trucks from GM & Chrysler. Oh wait…

  29. JWFITZ says:

    Is there enough available lithium to make EV cars running on Liion batteries ever a sensible scalable technology? It seems the answer is no. At the very least it will shift some of our oil dependence(ha!) to lithium dependence in either China or Bolivia, both of whom have already told us we can go hang ourselves in that respect.

    [JR: Unlike oil, lithium can be recycled. All I’ve seen says there is enough. I rather think that when the demand is there, the supply will be too. China never found a product they wouldn’t sell. But, yes, they certainly are trying to corner the market on electric batteries and vehicles.]

  30. Rick Covert says:


    I love the Volt and I love the work Chelsea Sexton has done to promote EVs and plug-in hybrids but the one thing that will unhinge the Volt from ever being successful in a mass production level of the type we have seen with cars like the Chevy Malibu is the price.

    Bob Lutz has stated it costs $40,000 to make the car. I believe it was former GM CEO Rick Waggoner who said that it would definitely not cost more that $50,000. So if they sell it for $47.500 with the rebate that puts it at $40,000. If this is going to be the people’s car there’s not going to be a lot of people buying it. People are going to buy what they can afford and they can afford a small car like the Toyota Yaris, the Chevy Aveo, or the soon to arrive Fiat 500 that gets 50 mpg from a standard internal combustion engine. So who’s going to buy the Volt?

    It reminds me of may days in college when Apple introduced the first Macintosh computer. It was nice but expensive so only the well healed college students bought it. Apple had a slogan, “The Computer for the Rest of US.” We called it, “The Computer for the Rich of US.”

    The Volt is a magnificent car but priced at $40,000 after rebate who but the wealthiest could buy it. Since they have the money they would be inclined to buy big SUVs over the Volt and they can afford the gasoline at any price. So the Volt will be too expensive for its target demographic and it will be not interesting enough for the wealthiest who can afford bigger cars or even if they buy an EV would probably buy the Fisker Karma or the Tesla Roadster.

    [JR: You won’t get me defending GM, only PHEVs. The price will inevitably come down, and some smart people will actually read the analysis by CMU (or this blog) and make PHEV-20s or PHEV-10s. Plus the price of gasoline is going to go through the roof. Technology and peak oil reality will cross paths 2015-2020, and after that, it is Katie bar the door.]

  31. Rick Covert says:

    “So if they sell it for $47.500 with the rebate that puts it at $40,000.”

    Sorry that’s, “So if they sell it for $47,500 with the rebate that puts it at $40,000.”

  32. Hey all,

    Wow, thanks for the great welcome reception! I might have to stick around these parts…

    The Volt is indeed (based on hints and intel, not announcements of course) supposed to be priced at around $40k gross, though there may be options available that push it over that. So ~$32,500+ net, though some states (ahem, Texas?) are working on incentives that may make it even lower than that.

    That said, while price is certainly a major consideration for many people, the early adopters who will imo absorb the first few years’ production of the plug-ins coming from most any manufacturer aren’t as price sensitive as the rest of the market. We also tend to assign far more pragmatism to hybrid and PH/EV buyers than other vehicle consumers; I’d agree that some folks consider life-cycle cost, but at the end of the day, car buying is an emotionally-based decision to a large degree. To wit, the predominant motivation for EV purchase of the last generation was not environmentalism, it was that they were “cool, fast, fun and/or the new thing to have” followed closely by a love of the technology. Obviously, none of these things live in a vacuum, but economic and cause-related concerns weren’t primary purchasing influencers for most people. Awareness of the pertinent causes is higher now, and I think people will resonate to the sensation of empowerment that these vehicles provide- but I’m still curious to see if those motivational pools really shift that much.

    We’re all looking forward to the day that costs come down for these vehicles, and we’re looking at a variety of ways to do that- but personally, I like the fact that there are at least a dozen different programs being pursued with different propulsion and body configurations, options, and price points.

    The Gen I Volt will not have bi-directional inverter (which is fine because we are unlikely to have V2G capability on the grid side by then anyhow), but GM is already considering Gen II and beyond.


  33. Rick Covert says:


    Thanks! You’re terrific! I love the promotional work your doing on EVs since I saw you for the first time in “Who Killed the Electric Car.” That’s big praise coming from someone who’s an oil brat. I just visited the former oil fields that my dad managed in a small poor Texas town called Lovelady. I worked on it and it was like a ghost town with all of the equipment gone and the small office overgrown with brush and weeds. It was sad because it was my late father’s work but it was also a reminder of where I had been the day before at an electric car dealer so I had a glimpse into the possibilities of the future. I wish there was a green industry that could employ the people of Lovelady the way Sweetwater is with wind turbines.

    Anyway, thanks for the price info on the Volt. At $33,000 might be doable for me though.

  34. Rick Covert says:

    Technology and peak oil reality will cross paths 2015-2020, and after that, it is Katie bar the door. JR

    The EIA 2015 report on non-OPEC oil dropping by 30 mbbd and the 2015 scenario played out in Earth 2100 was more than enough to convince me that my next car is electric or bust and I hope I will be able to get the Volt.

  35. hapa says:

    still looking at prolonged high gas prices knocking down the resale value of most current US cars, still looking at prolonged employment weakness and tighter lending. we need to turn our economy away from dependence on VMT.

  36. Neil Howes says:

    Lets hope GM decides to go all-out on the Volt, advance the sales date and increase production way beyond 100,000 per year. I am sure there will be more than 10,000 customers if the price is less than $40,000.

    I predict he Volt will be back-ordered for 6 months as soon as it goes on sale, especially if Toyota is still only leasing PHEV versions of the Prius.

    If they are smart GM will hire Chelsea to head sales.

  37. paulm says:

    susan, good point.

    However, that surly would mean that we would be tending to double our grid CO2 emissions wouldn’t it?

    And I bet whatever, that you would still see day time consumption go up because of usage patterns.

  38. Seth Masia says:

    paulm: Only about 50% of US electric power comes from coal and that proportion will shrink. When you do the CO2 arithmetic, it turns out that in electric mode, on average, a PHEV produces about half the CO2 per mile (from power plant smokestacks) than an equivalent internal-combustion engine. If you live in a state with little or no coal-fired electric production (West Coast mostly) the PHEV has little or no CO2 emissions. For more detail on this works, see “How to Choose a Low-Carbon Car” in the June issue of Solar Today.

  39. Thanks Rick- I live in something of an oil town myself; it’s named after the Chevron refinery a block away…

    Actually, usage patterns show that most people charge at night, when we have lots of extra capacity. In general, this is because it’s convenient (car’s parked, owner’s sleeping or otherwise engaged) but time of use rates have also proven effective over the last 12+ years. Certainly, smart meters will lead to real-time pricing to continue this reinforcement.

    Utilities are, however starting to see a new peak ~7pm- from plasma TVs, not cars.

    Agreed, hapa- lower VMT is certainly a goal, but to the extent that the V is there, better not to have them be petroleum MT.