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At Least It’s an Op-Ed Column

November 13th, 2010

George F. Will is an idiot.

In his Washington Post Op-Ed, dated Sunday, November 14 (which is odd, since today’s only the 13th), Will pens a sarcastic piece trivializing the technology contained within the Chevy Volt, and ridiculing the U.S. government’s role in preventing General Motors’ complete collapse.  I’d like to correct a few of his statements.

Will writes that “the Volt is not quite an electric car, or not the sort GM deliberately misled Americans into expecting.”  He explains that it’s “just another hybrid,” and claims the public was duped when it was revealed that, under certain operating conditions, “the gas engine will power the wheels.”  It’s true that the Volt is a hybrid – effectively, a series hybrid – which everyone even remotely involved in the auto industry has acknowledged for quite some time now.  (Sure, GM describes it as an extended-range electric vehicle, to emphasize the fact that it is the electric motor that is responsible for making the car go.)

GM's Patent Application: Output-Split Electrically Variable Transmission with Electric Propulsion Using One or Two Motors

GM never deliberately misled anyone.  Will, like a few other folks, is making a big deal out of the fact that, when GM’s patent application for the Volt’s transmission was discovered recently, it was realized that there exists a potential mechanical path linking the engine with the wheels.  It doesn’t seem to matter that, the vast majority of the time, this path will not be engaged.  (Those of us who have seen the maps illustrating the operational controls of the Volt’s transmission understand this.)  Nor does it seem to matter that, when this path is engaged, it does so simply to increase the efficiency of the complete drivetrain as a whole – the engine can never provide motive force to the wheels on its own.  …Nope, Will has been duped.  And he is pissed.

Will goes on to complain that, in a recent Volt ad, the fine print explains that the car will only available in 6 states plus Washington DC at the end of 2010.  Of course, he fails to mention (or simply is ignorant of the fact) that, come March 2011, several more states will receive Volts.  By the end of 2011, the Volt will be available in most places around the country.  By mid 2012, the car will be available nationwide.  So don’t worry, Will – you’ll be able to get yours soon enough.

Next on Will’s gripe-list are the numbers:  $41,000 for a car that only seats four, before the $7,500 “bribe” that the feds will pay you to buy it, not to mention state-level subsidies for both the car and a Level 2 charger.  He adds that gasoline will have to cost $9 a gallon before these cars will make it “on their own merit.”  (He makes no mention of the subsidies that we already pay to keep gasoline from being $9 a gallon.)  He also dings GM for predicting they’d produce 60,000 Volts in the first year of production; however, the citation he gives is anything but a forecast.  Instead, it’s a news story from over three years ago – when the Volt prototype was first revealed, and well before the implosion of the North American auto industry – describing potential volume levels needed to drive the price of the car down.

Will also trivializes the environmental impact of the Volt, saying it simply stores electricity produced by coal- and gas-fired power plants.  Of course, only about half of our nation’s power plants are coal-powered.  A substantial portion is nuclear.  There’s also quite a bit of hydro power.  And while renewables such as wind and solar play only a small role now, their impact is certainly growing.  (It doesn’t take a lot of effort to predict what Will’s opinion of federal money going towards accelerating the market viability of these technologies would be…)  The point is, electric motors are much more efficient than gasoline engines, and on the balance, electric-drive powertrains are an environmental win.

Will concludes his obtuse argument by criticizing the financial position in which GM currently finds itself, having had its bankruptcy financed by the U.S. and Canadian governments.  The pitfalls and benefits of the government preventing the loss of tens and hundreds of thousands of jobs associated with The General and its supply-chain can be debated forever.  History will tell us whether it was the “right” decision or not.  We may not have to wait that long, however, as GM plans for its IPO.  Then again, it may be investors in Asia and the Middle East that end up laughing all the way to the bank.

I’m in no position – nor do I have any ammunition with which – to defend GM.  But I do understand automotive technology.  Obviously, George Will doesn’t.  OK, so maybe that doesn’t make him an idiot.  But it should give him pause before scripting an ill-informed Op-Ed about it.

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