I had a chance to read EETime's writer Mark LaPedus' comments on the Chevrolet Volt the other day (Missing gaffes: the Volt is a dolt) and can't help but feel that Mr. LaPedus is a bit misguided in his frank criticism of GM's Hail Mary project.
Firstly, I'm never one to criticize something before it is introduced to the market. The world is littered with critics who have cited facts and analysis that a product was doomed to failure only to have the general public make them look like fools by telling them otherwise. Who could forget Herbert Hoover telling Herbert Ives that the concept of 'television' would never take off in Americaor a recent favorite of mine, a writer at the Register claiming the iPhone to be an unmitigated failure (Why the Apple phone will fail, and fail badly) equating it to the Pippin? I've always been of the "wait-and-see" approach to all things and I just can't see how one can call the Volt a failure yet when the first car hasn't come off the assembly line.
In my opinion, the Volt is already a success. Why? Because GM was finally able to do, and rally behind, something different, almost revolutionary, with the Volt. Because it brought the concept of an electrically-driven, mass manufactured car from fantasy to near reality. Because someone from the major automotive industry was daring enough to be the first. Being the first is never easy typically, the first on any new product will be met with unexpected problems, that will always be the case. But for the Chevy Volt, the success lies in that being the forerunner in this field means that they have set the benchmark for all the other car companies to strive for. It means that subsequent entries in the electric vehicle (EV) market will aim to be better than the Volt, thereby, in theory, accelerating the technological growth of the EV market which subsequently could accelerate market acceptance.
The analyst from Gartner that Mr. LaPedus quotes, Jim Hines, seemed to indicate that this technological growth would be the X-factor of the EV industry and points to an arbitrary date of 2020 for the year that technology reaches a stage satisfactory to consumers. Personally, I believe that the creation of the Volt and any market share it achieves on launch (even if it is less than a percent) will immediately catch the attention of the ultra-competitive Japanese automotive companies. Can you honestly see them waiting until 2020 to reveal the cusp of their EV work?
Let me close by saying I'm not an eternal optimist here. The Volt, in terms of a one-off product, might be one of the worst received vehicles since the Ford Edsel. But the strongest key it its success is not the roadblocks of "limited by poor range, long charging times, costly battery replacement and reduced service opportunity for dealers" as stated in the article, but the primary factor that drives all market successes price. If anything will be the downfall of the electric vehicle, it is going to be the Volt's starting price tag of $40,000. In 2010, in our fractured economy, will Americans be ready to spend $40k on a car that offers the same comforts of other much lower-priced sedans like the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla? Are people willing to spend the extra $15k on a car just because it's more "eco-friendly"? That's the biggest question that GM faces with the Volt. If the Volt was to feature a sticker price comparable to their gas-powered brethren, the worries of range anxiety and new technology would be greatly lessened.
To me, the success of the electric car will come down to having the technology be affordable, thereby making it a viable alternative to combustion-based vehicles. Hopefully, the launch of the Volt in 2010 rapidly accelerates the technology so the arbitrary date of 2020 that the people at Gartner point to as the tipping point, gets moved up five or six years. In my opinion, I think the people at Gartner should at least wait until 2010 before they make sweeping generalizations on the viability of a new technology. Especially when they don't even take into consideration the rising costs of fuel.