GM Shows Off Their New 230mpg Chevy Volt

Our guest blogger is Kate Tecku, Energy Policy Intern at the Center for American Progress

On Tuesday, after weeks of buzz from a viral media blitz, GM finally answered its own marketing spin, “What is 230?” Apparently, the new Chevrolet Volt – set to hit show room floors in 2010 – will achieve an astounding city fuel economy of 230 miles per gallon.

GM Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson exclaimed in a press release on Tuesday that the Volt is sure to be a “game changer.” He went on to note that “based on the results of unofficial development testing of pre-production prototypes, the Volt has achieved 40 miles of electric-only, petroleum-free driving.” This, taken in conjunction with the Department of Transportation’s findings that nearly 8 in 10 Americans drive less than 40 miles per day, means that “many Chevy Volt drivers may be able to be in pure electric mode on a daily basis without having to use any gas” – unlike other hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.

The Volt, however, could cost about $40,000, putting it out of reach of many middle income consumers. GM believes that government incentives and battery warranties can make this new PHEV model an appealing option to climate- and cost-conscious consumers, despite the Volt’s high production costs. Prime among these government measures is a $7,500 consumer rebate in the 2009 stimulus package for purchasing qualifying electric plug-in vehicles such as the Volt. The Volt will become more economically attractive when oil and gasoline prices rise during the worldwide economic recovery. In contrast to their conservative predictions in 2008, the Energy Information Agency now expects oil prices to increase to $110 a barrel by 2015.

Critics say the 230 mpg claim for GM’s new plug-in is misleading – and even if it does live up to the hype, the Volt’s fuel range will pale in comparison to Nissan’s new plug-in model, the Leaf, due out in 2012. In a show of industry competition for most fuel economy supremacy, Nissan’s EV Twitter feed posted this yesterday: “Nissan Leaf = 367 mpg, no tailpipe, and no gas required. Oh yeah, and it’ll be affordable too.”

Japanese auto makers aren’t the only competition GM will have in the PHEV market. China announced last December it’s new plug-in, the F3DM, which will only cost an estimated $21,000 and has a battery range of an estimated 63 miles. Though it is unlikely that this model meets other U.S. safety standards, it is yet another sign that China wants to dominate the development and sale of clean energy technologies.

General Motors hopes the release of the Volt will signal to consumers the company is heeding the call for a new generation of super fuel efficient vehicles. The Center for American Progress hosted auto industry executives and independent engineers back in 2008 at an event to discuss the future of plug-in electric technology where GM Vice President Jonathan J. Lauckner acknowledged that “the automobile industry can no longer exclusively rely on oil as fuel for our vehicles.”

GM and the Volt may notably affect the electric car battery industry as well. Bob Kruse, GM’s executive director of global vehicle engineering, said on Friday that lithium-ion batteries – the kind that powers the Volt – are expected to come down in price and weight as the Volt is brought into mass production: “Getting the energy density up, getting the weight out, getting the cost out, that’s all part of what we are going to be challenged to do,” said Kruse.

Efforts to design the long range batteries of the future got a boost on August 5th when President Obama announced at a speech in Elkhart County, Indiana that the Department of Energy would invest $2.4 billion in advanced battery research. The funding is from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and is expected to save or create tens of thousands of jobs in Indiana.

In addition, investments in a new smart grid will also be pivotal to the full scale deployment of PHEV’s. Britta Gross, General Motors’ manager of Hydrogen and Electrical Infrastructure Development spoke at length in an interview last November about the partnerships GM has built with utility companies such as Duke and Edison and her confidence that these companies are more than prepared for the wide-scale deployment of the Volt.

This announcement by GM is sure to please the White House, considering then-candidate Obama’s pledge last August to put 1,000,000 plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015. The Volt and other super efficient cars are an essential element to meet President Obama’s new fuel efficiency standards that the White House believes will “result in savings of 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of vehicles sold in the next five years alone.” Plug-in vehicles like the Volt are essential to cutting our nation’s addiction to foreign oil and reducing global warming pollution. It may just be the “game changer” GM – and America — needs.