Study: Chevy Volt "Not Cost Effective in Any Scenario"

Posted: Mar 02, 2009 10:27 a.m.

The Chevy Volt will be too expensive to justify, according to a new study published by Carnegie Mellon University.

Bloomberg reports, "General Motors Corp.'s Volt electric car may be too expensive to buy and operate to displace Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius hybrid as the industry benchmark for cutting fuel use and cutting carbon exhaust."

The problem, according to engineering professor Jeremy Michalek, lead author of the study, is GM's targeted battery-only range for the Volt. GM engineers have said the Volt will travel up to 40 miles on battery power alone before its gasoline engine activates to recharge the batteries. GM targeted the 40-mile range because most Americans, according to Transportation Department research, travel less than 40 miles per day - meaning most Volt owners would rarely use gasoline at all. Michalek tells Bloomberg, "Forty miles might be a sweet spot for making sure a lot of people get to work without using gasoline, but you're doing it at a cost that will never be repaid in fuel savings."

Autoblog Green explains, "The problem is that the cost of the batteries required to support a 40-mile electric-only range far outweighs the incremental benefit compared to a shorter range plug-in or non-plug hybrid." The battery pack used to power a vehicle with a much shorter range is more cost-effective, according to the study. "The cost of a battery pack for a car like the Chevy Volt is estimated to be as much as $15,000," although it is important to note than GM has never revealed any information about the cost of the Volt's batteries.

The study (available in full from Carnegie Mellon) concludes with a policy recommendation that GM may not want to hear: "The dominance of the small-capacity PHEV over larger-capacity PHEVs across the wide range of scenarios examined in this study suggests that government incentives designed to increase adoption of PHEVs may be best targeted toward adoption of small-capacity PHEVs by urban drivers who are able to charge frequently."

GM Vice President Ed Pepers told us last month that the Volt's price won't be revealed until its clear what incentives the U.S. government is willing to provide to help buyers afford the vehicle.

The study, of course, has its critics. Jalopnik points out, "Pay-down on the price differential with hybrids and EREV vehicles is something incredibly shaky to calculate, it requires projecting the variability on individual driving habits, daily and yearly mileage driven, price of fuel, price of electricity, factoring unforeseen tax, parking, and HOV benefits among many others. Then there's also that unquantifiable factor early adopters and environmentalists are motivated by."

Autoblog Green, meanwhile, points out that the study's authors relied heavily on projections about what batteries might theoretically be capable of, not real-world testing. "Accelerated testing in the lab can only tell so much about battery life. Until these vehicles are in the field and exposed to the wide range of conditions that occur over a number of years, no one can be certain."

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