Chevy Volt: A Jolt of Reality

As promised, I've taken possession of a Chevy Volt, a gasoline-and-electric vehicle being marketed as a green or environmentally friendly vehicle. It's parked in my driveway in all its red fire truck glory with the Avnet Express logo splashed on the hood and a side sticker from TE Connectivity. After a brief ride to the Philadelphia airport to drop off the Fuller brothers — Brian, editorial director for EE Times' EE Life engineering community, and the younger brother who accompanied him on the road trip — I am eager to take the car on the road for a full workout. (See: Driving Miss Volt.)

Here at Last: The Chevy Volt and the Fuller Brothers

Here's my initial take on the car. First, I am really glad I didn't delete a post by EBN reader Kevin (that's all I know about him) about the Volt that I thought was objectionable because of the acronym WTF. Kevin explained that WTF stands for “Where are the facts?” and not the odious phrase I had in my mind. My apologies to Kevin, and I want to thank him for taking the extra step of spelling out the phrase.

The car started soundlessly. There was no wheezing or purring (even in gasoline mode). It just started, and I had no idea the engine was already running until I got a gentle reminder from Brian Fuller to start rolling. This is going to take some getting used to, but I can handle the silence.

The Volt is comfortable and roomy inside. It seats four comfortably and five with a gentle squeeze. The trunk has enough space for a family traveling with a full suite of luggage, and the car feels, well, like a regular car.

That's the good news. Now back to Kevin's valid point about the Volt. It isn't an all-electric vehicle. Properly described, it's a hybrid, and even that term doesn't fully explain what it is. It runs on electricity for a limited number of miles (about 40). In my opinion, this means the Volt isn't all it's been cranked up to be. We have reported on this exhaustively in the past, and I wanted to see and experience it firsthand before taking the issue further. You'll see in coming blogs a thorough evaluation of the on-road performance, as well as the opportunities for electronics companies.

Before you think I am going to be running a thorough round of negative blogs about the Volt, though, I'd like to disabuse you. My interest in the vehicle lies in the opportunities (current, missed, and future ones) for electronic part vendors, component distributors, system developers, software makers, and contract assemblers when it comes to supporting and servicing the nascent environmentally friendly automotive market. Companies supplying sensors, connectors, batteries, processors, and a swath of other products can gain sales by supplying this market.

Avnet Express, a unit of {complink 577|Avnet Inc.}, is co-sponsoring the Drive for Innovation program with EBN's parent, UBM Electronics. Like many in the industry, Avnet Express is interested in the innovation behind the car and opportunities for future innovation. Avnet says engineers can bring a lot more into the environmentally friendly vehicle market, and it has taken on the task of having UBM reporters interview engineers and designers throughout America about the product and its shortcomings, advantages, and possibilities.

Kevin's point on its nomenclature is well noted. I queried Brian exhaustively about the car, and I can tell you it's more of a gas combustion vehicle than an electric car. But there's also a lot to like about the vehicle. I'll chronicle these soon. However, this vehicle and others like it (hybrid, fully electric, etc.) offer electronics OEMs and component vendors the opportunity to strut their stuff. We've tried to get a complete list of components from the electronics industry in the Volt, but this effort has been like pulling teeth. OEMs typically don't allow component vendors to say much about their design scores, and General Motors is cut from the same cloth.

The battery technology in the Volt imposes major limitations on the potential for market acceptance. It needed a full charge by the time Brian delivered it to me, and this will apparently take about 12 hours on a 110V electric line. So I've taken the Volt for a ride the traditional way –- consuming gasoline like many other vehicles on the road. That was a major letdown. Brian assured me that I would like the car a whole lot more once it's fully charged. I can't wait.

By the way, a teardown of the Volt is scheduled for sometime next spring. UBM Electronics will take the car apart and give us a peek at its innards. Then we can tell everyone whose products are designed into the Chevy Volt and how much they represent breakthroughs and sales opportunities for the industry.

Keep your skepticism — there's a place for it. But don't write off the Volt. It promises more than it has delivered so far, but a market exists for it, and electronics vendors will help deliver the electricity-based high performance it aims to deliver.

39 comments on “Chevy Volt: A Jolt of Reality

  1. Parser
    September 21, 2011

    True jolt. 40 miles on electric power. It looks like a quick management decision to show an “electric car,” but full of compromises. I hope they are working on a next model. I am curious what your test will reveal. 

  2. Nemos
    September 21, 2011

    In the picture, the car is looked very nice, I think hybrid car like volt is the step between the gasoline cars and the electric cars. It is pointless to say how much will benefit the Electric supply chain from this transition if begins. I want to ask if chevy has quick a charging option.

  3. Eldredge
    September 21, 2011


    With currently available technology, I don't see the practicality of a recharging electric-only vehicle. It seem like there is a need for generating a portion of the needed electricity on-board the vehicle, but perhaps with other potential fuel sources than gas. But I think you have the right focus for this test drive – what are the opportunities for the electronics industry to move this technology forward?

  4. bolaji ojo
    September 21, 2011

    @Nemos, There's a shorter charging option for the Chevy Volt using the 240 voltage line. This will recharge the car in six hours rather than the 12 hours required for a full charge using 110 volts. Even this seems kind of long and should be whittled down more. A quick one hour charge should be the goal but I don't see that happening anytime soon. As Brian Fuller explained battery technology is lagging far behind advances in electronics and semiconductor.

  5. bolaji ojo
    September 21, 2011

    Eldredge, The opportunity to advance the battery technology is one of the ways electronics manufacturers can help accelerate the adoption of this type of product. Without adequate and faster charging mechanism the Chevy Volt will remain a niche product for the richer or more Green-friendly members of the society.

  6. Ms. Daisy
    September 21, 2011

    The Volt loks great, but did you state that the vehicle's full charge (a 12 hour wait) is only good for 40 miles? That truly is a huge limitation and a let down. I am curious to read about the mileage at night when all lights are on and the car is in electric mode. Waiting to read about the opportunities for electronic OEMs and component vendors.

  7. bolaji ojo
    September 21, 2011

    @Ms. Daisy, Yes, a full charge requires 12 hours! That's a show stopper. I am going to focus on the positive side or advantages of the Volt in other blogs. I intend to pore through the manual for the Volt to get some information on the likely cost of a full charge. 

  8. SunitaT
    September 22, 2011

    It looks like a quick management decision to show an “electric car,” but full of compromises.

    @Parser, I agree with you. I fail to understand why there is so much delay to release truly electric vehicle. By the way “Laser Power System” company has announced a new design for a thorium engine that could be used in a future car. They claim one gm of thorium would provide the equivalent of 28,400 litres of gasoline, so a thorium-powered car could last for 300,000 miles (480,000 km) ) or 5,000 hours of driving between fill-ups.

  9. SunitaT
    September 22, 2011

    I intend to pore through the manual for the Volt to get some information on the likely cost of a full charge.

    @Bolaji, 12 hours for single recharge is pretty long time. Many developing nations face serious shortage of electricity. Many rural areas in India gets electricity for only 12hours per day. So until we improve this efficiency this vehicle will not have universal appeal.

    September 22, 2011

    I imagine there will be many opportunities for electronics suppliers in the automotive industry with cars like the Prius and Volt.  Hybrid and electric only cars seem to be experiencing a resurgence these days and I expect electric cars are now here to stay.  Large profit margin parts will be found in the HV drive train which is an area that only a few suppliers really know what they are doing.  

    September 22, 2011

    I imagine there will be many opportunities for electronics suppliers in the automotive industry with cars like the Prius and Volt.  Hybrid and electric only cars seem to be experiencing a resurgence these days and I expect electric cars are now here to stay.  Large profit margin parts will be found in the HV drive train which is an area that only a few suppliers really know what they are doing.  

  12. Eldredge
    September 22, 2011


      I was recently reading an article espousing the benefits of thorium as an alternate nuclear reator fuel. I assume the technology for this vehicle is basically a small reactor that produces electricity for the vehicle power system. That would be consistent with the small amount of material needed. Will have to check into the Laser Power System announcement.

  13. prabhakar_deosthali
    September 22, 2011

    Bolaji –

    one of the facts I am interested to know is that – does the car battery gets charged by the energy wasted in braking or while going down the hill. If such energy recovery happens while the car is running on gas it could save on some of the recharging time of the battery and also increase the efficiency of the hybrid system.

  14. Ariella
    September 22, 2011

    Wow, we got a picture! Bolaji, does your car look like that — all red with big writing on it? If it does, it should be quite easy to spot in a crowded parking lot. That is an advantage, though. You wouldn't make the mistake of taking someone else's car for yours.

  15. AnalyzeThis
    September 22, 2011

    @tirlapur, the Volt is certainly not intended for use in the developing world. So I think your point about this car not really being too suitable for rural areas of India is a bit irrelevant!

    Obviously, the first challenge is getting vehicles like these to gain widespread adoption in America and some of the larger European countries. Just that is going to take many, many years. And also of course cost is a factor as well; this technology isn't cheap.

    Anyhow, as far as the 40 mile range goes… I really think this is fine. For a good percentage of commuters, I think you could go all-electric and then plug it in at night. Sure, longer trips would require gas, but I know that if I had a Volt when I lived in California… I would rarely need to fill it up.

    No, the Volt is not a good fit for everyone… but for many, it has a lot of appeal.

  16. Anna Young
    September 22, 2011

    @ Tirlapur It makes me wonder! 12 hours of full charge time? I don't think this is designed for developing countries yet. Perhaps there will be a different model with lesser hours of recharge period. Despite the battery technology limitations, I think there's a potential market for the Volt. I look forward to reading-the performance handling in Bolaji's next blog.

    Bolaji, Is the Volt cost effective? If it's a hybrid, what is the level of it's fuel efficiency?


  17. RobertinHouston
    September 22, 2011

    I think there is a lot of confusion here! I own a Volt and have driven it 10,000 miles. Here are some basic points that may help:

    1) It takes 10 hours to recharge the battery from zero to full on 120v and 4 hours on 240v
    a) The optional 240v charger costs an additional $495
    b) If you decide to get it, it can be installed in your garage our near your driveway (it is essentially the same as installing an electric clothes dryer and draws less current than a dryer does)

    2) Unlike any other electric car on the market, the Volt does not need to be charged to drive. It has a range extender so that it can drive anytime 

    3) Far from being a “show stopper” most people will be quite comfortable letting the car charge overnight and driving the first 40 miles of the day on all electric before the range extender kicks in (remember, 40 miles a day is 14,600 miles a year)

    4) GM market data says that about 80% of people can do their daily commute on all electric but if you have to drive farther, the Volt has unlimited range just like any other car (as long as you keep gasoline in the tank) I have driven several 300+ mile trips with mine no issues.

    5) If you are also able to plug in at work, you will have a full charge to drive all electric on the way home.

    6) We find in the real world that (based on how we drive with a combination of daily commute and long trips that average around 15k miles a year) after 10,000 miles we are:

      a) Driving 70% on electric 30% on gasoline
      b) Have a lifetime average of 125 mpg (not including the electricity)
      c) It costs us $1.20 to recharge the car from empty and go 40 miles on electricity – even on a fuel efficient 35mpg car like the Chevy Cruze that would cost around $4.00 so the electric fuel cost is very low
      d) When the car does switch over to gasoline we get about 38 mpg on gasoline only mode (called charge sustaining mode)
      e) On most weekend days we drive well over the 40 miles on all electric because we find that we tend to drive in the morning for errands, come home (car is always plugged in when it is in the garage), do some afternoon travel, then have some sort of an evening event. It is easy in normal living to find yourself driving 80 miles or more on a Saturday or a Sunday without using any gasoline.

    I hope that is helpful to better understand the car. In 10,000 miles we have only used about 80 gallons of gasoline and we have needed to make no changes in lifestyle to use it.

    Just to provide a cost comparison, if we had instead purchased a BMW 328i (which is – in our view – a very comparable car) and a comparably equipped Volt, the BMW would have cost about $3,000 more at purchase (after the tax credit) and would have consumed around 450 gallons of gasoline at a cost of around $1,650. By contrast, we have spent a total of about $550 in fuel. After five years I expect the Volt to cost about $11,000 less than the BMW.

    If you prefer a less prestigious car as a comparison, had we bought a Ford Fusion hybrid instead of a Volt we would have spent an extra $2,500 on the Volt (after all the tax rebates). In the first 10,000 miles alone we would have consumed an additional 160 gallons of fuel driving the Fusion at a cost of around $600. Even after we count the cost of electricity we have used, our total fuel savings so far is $400. Based on fuel savings alone, the extra $2,500 is paid back in four years. But the car also has other cost savings. For example, the oil life is still 78%, so we really do not need oil changes except every 30,000 miles or so.

    Of course one does not buy this car for cost savings. You buy it because you like the car and like the fact that you can drive – like we do – 70% of the time on pollution free electricity and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

  18. Houngbo_Hospice
    September 22, 2011


    I think there is a lot of confusion here! I own a Volt and have driven it 10,000 miles. 

    Very interesting analysis. You have been very convincing. However, I think that the price tag is still one of the factors that may delay the adoption of electric cars (especially the Chevy Volt) on a large scale. I would like to own a Chevy Volt for sure, but I still find the price a little high. But it is encouraging to hear that people like you are having a wonderful experience with electric cars. They are the future anyway.

    Thanks, again.

  19. Houngbo_Hospice
    September 22, 2011

    @tirlapur :

    You raised a good point about the use of this kinds of cars in developing countries. The recharge time is actually less than 12 hours. Also the car is hybrid and you can still switch to gasoline when there is not enough electricity in the batteries. 

    But it is obvious that such cars are not for everyone.

  20. JADEN
    September 22, 2011

    Chevy Volt doesn't really look like the concept car GM initiallly claimed, the company claimed it as an extended-range eletcric vehicle but technically it is still an hybrid, as it has both an electric motor and a gas engine to power the wheels.

  21. RobertinHouston
    September 22, 2011

    technically it is still an hybrid, as it has both an electric motor and a gas engine to power the wheels.”

    Well, sort of. In the Volt the electric motors provide all the propulsion for the car up to an electronically limited 100 mph.

    There is ONE exception:

    If you are in charge sustaining mode (ie you have run out of battery power and the generator is running) AND you are going over 70 mph, then (and only then) the gasoline generator becomes an assistant “engine” to help the electric motors in direct propulsion of the wheels. This is more efficienct at high speed when there is no more charge remaining in the battery.

    So it ie technically a hybrid in the same way that a moped is technically a bicycle because it still has pedals. Using the engine to power the wheels is only done partially and in very specific circumstances.

    It is more accurate to think of it as an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle which is how it behaves 95% of the time or more in my experience.

  22. itguyphil
    September 22, 2011


    If the gas mileage is still over 40 mpg city, I would not mind the engineering!

  23. SunitaT
    September 23, 2011

    But it is obvious that such cars are not for everyone.

    @Hospice_Houngbo, thats the sad part. We want such cars should be used by everyone so that main purpose of using eco-friendly cars is met. I hope this technology will slowly evolve so that it reaches the masses.

  24. Houngbo_Hospice
    September 23, 2011


    “I hope this technology will slowly evolve so that it reaches the masses.”

    In my opinion, solar powered cars could be a good option for developing countires such as the countries in Africa where the sun shines almost every day. This may not be easy to implement, but it may worth a try.

  25. Adeniji Kayode
    September 23, 2011

    I really agree with every one's comment on the fact that Volt is not yet an option for developing countries. Most of these countries can not even boast of 6 hours of light in a day and here, volt requires 12 hours of charging.

    On the other hand, what is the cost of maintenance and what does it maintenance really entails?

  26. Adeniji Kayode
    September 23, 2011

    @ Bolaji,

    While I really don,t know if to say Congratulations or Good Job, I,m really looking forward to your comment/ review after you trip, Safe journey.

    On the other hand, I,m not tooo sure if we have a technology yet that can charge up within One hour, even phone that is under 4v(battery capacity) most  times takes more that an hour to charge.

  27. HM
    September 23, 2011

    That is one nice car that makes sense! even for that price!

    Read about this car's performance. 150 hp and pretty good torque for a car with 1.4 Litre gas generator! I think it is ok even if it takes few hours for charging its battery.


    Enjoy your drive!


  28. Clairvoyant
    September 23, 2011

    Yes, Prabhakar. The Chevy Volt does have regenerative braking, as found by quickly looking on Wikipedia.

    As Wikipedia states, and I agree with, this car is a Plug-In Hybrid Electric vehicle.

  29. Ms. Daisy
    September 23, 2011

    @RobertinHoustin, do you see opportunities for the electronic supply chain in GMs” Volt?

  30. elctrnx_lyf
    September 24, 2011

    @ Bolaji, It is sad to see that you have to drive vastly touted EV as a regular gas vehicle. Anyways by now you would be riding it with completely charged up batteries. But what I wonder is why not a company like GM can not bring in a complete EV into the market.

  31. Himanshugupta
    September 25, 2011

    @RobertinHouston, thanks for the post. i had lots of questions, some of which are answered in your post. As you rightly said, most people will buy hybrid not to save money but for other important factors. If i think about the resale value then what difference would it make? Also i think that electric battery have a limited lifetime then what is the additional cost.

  32. Himanshugupta
    September 25, 2011

    @Bolaji, congrats for the car. Will be eager to read more about your experience about the hybrid vehicle. 

  33. Wale Bakare
    September 25, 2011

     I want to hear how a fully charged battery would power up vehicle in extreme weather conditions especially during winter period.

  34. bolaji ojo
    September 25, 2011

    @Wale Bakare, The Volt actually works quite as well as regular gasoline vehicles in all weather conditions. In electric mode it has the power to perform in more or less the same way and because of the information system in place drivers can get tips on maximizing energy use.

  35. bolaji ojo
    September 25, 2011

    @Anna Young, The Volt, in electric or gasoline mode, is highly cost-efficient. The cost of a full charge is minimal and even if this lasts only 34 miles, it is still a good deal. In gas mode, the Volt is even more efficient. It offers better mileage per gallon than most vehicles on the road today. The one I drove gave me about 36 miles per gallon; that's a lot better than some of the more fuel efficient vehicles in the market now.

  36. bolaji ojo
    September 25, 2011

    @Tirlapur, The technology is already available to everyone. In many parts of the world, mass transportation is replacing single-occupant vehicles. Cars are used in Europe, for instance, for quick trips to the local groceries and the Volt can easily handle this. For longer distances, the Volt's electric system is supplemented with gasoline for longer drives. It works. I drove more than 300 miles to New Hampshire and the fuel consumption was lower than for other vehicles I have used in the past.

  37. Ms. Daisy
    September 25, 2011

    Bolaji, I assume your trip was uneventful. Any new opportunties for the Electronic OEMs?

  38. bolaji ojo
    September 26, 2011

    @Ms. Daisy, My concluding blog on the Chevy Volt should be posted within a couple of hours. In answer to your question, I see numerous opportunities for electronics companies in the design and adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles. Software is a major opportunity. The Chevy Volt, for instance, provides digital information on a continuous basis to the vehicle driver. It has taken a lot of the guesswork out of vehicle monitoring and maintenance. Sensors alert the driver to nearby objects while the onboard information system provides data on electricity usage, gasoline consumption, performance efficiencies, safety and overall maintenance.

    The Volt, like many new vehicles on the road today, tells drivers in digital form when an oil change is due, monitors tire gauges and has touch sensitive applications for controlling climate conditions inside the car as well as other comfort tools. Many applications you see in current generation smartphones are migrating to vehicles. For semiconductor suppliers there are numerous opportunities to provide chips that help track vehicle performance, execute commands digitally rather than mechanically, operate informatics and help improve safety. More than in the past, today's vehicles  contain thousands of electronics.

    That's the current situation. I see future opportunities for electronics companies in helping to extend battery longevity, making it smaller, improving power recovery (from the wheels and braking mechanism, for instance) and perhaps developing a new system that recharges the battery or generate electricity for driving simply from the motion of the vehicle itself. So, rather than plug-in charging, a next-generation electric hybrid could recharge itself with the motion of the wheels. And, of course, there is the potential also for automated driving. Many companies, including Google and Volkswagen, are currently testing pilotless navigation using cameras, sensors and computer technology. The next hybrid car five years from now will be completely different from the ones on the road currently.

  39. michaelsmith
    August 31, 2012

    Chevy Volt seems to be the most practical car in terms of usability coz it does not require any gas to power up the motor! It only needs the power of electricity to keep the car running. While most cars are powered with Bosch super plus spark plug the Chevy Volt is powered by its rechargeable battery.

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