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the Volt

July 1, 2008

I finally had a chance today to check out Bob’s project. The Chevy volt. It was definitely interesting how much respect Bob commanded. I’ve been told that he is somewhat of a legend in the automotive industry. I knew him only as a vibrant 70 something aeronautical enthusiast.

The facility was impressive. It had that post 1980’s era feel; clumsy walls and work spaces – very uninspiring. It is what I thought a large American company would be like.

The people I spoke with was very charged and committed to the goal of releasing the Volt. But, I couldn’t help but feel the tension that surrounded them. Maybe it was from the fire under their feet to meet the deadlines. I suspect its from something else. (but more on that later).

The tour started with the battery center. It is there where they do research and testing for batteries of varying designs that go on to hybrids and EV’s. It was very impressive! They have environmental torture chambers that drain and recharge batteries in extreme conditions. They basically had two types of batteries: the black tea bag lithium ions and these NiCad batteries for there hybrids. They also had an old EV1 battery that was huge compared to the new Lithium Ions. The old batteries were about twice as big and 3 times heavier! Wow!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to check out the car or the power train. But based on the tour, the design specs, the design mock ups. I was starting to get disappointed with the prospects of the Volt.

Let me explain why.

The battery itself I feel is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, I don’t think they took the conceptualization and design far enough. I was lacking innovation. I don’t think they explored nano-technologies. They simply went with what they feel to be “best of breed”. The pack itself was designed like a giant tea bag. Primarily designed to rest underneath the rear seats of a mid sized sedan. Presumably they will be able to connect them as series so that another set of batteries can be placed longitudinally perpendicular to the rear battery. Seems like a good idea, but the result is a bulky interior that would greatly limit automobile designs. (To be fair, I feel that this is a flaw in all manufacturers and the way they think of battery designs: here are my thoughts). Unfortunately, they didn’t answer questions on heat management and other manufacturing/product techniques. Finally, I was told that the battery would have a range of 40-to-50 miles. I feel that its just not enough.

The platform and implementation appears to be the same old way of making an automobile. There was a large consideration to leverage existing methods in manufacturing. But as we all know this is not the right way to innovate.

Basically, the vision is to make this car as similar to the existing cars as possible. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but American mid size cars aren’t necessarily the best selling vehicles in the world.

The platform: wheels, drive configuration, interior design, & suspension approach is very American.

Looking at the platform, manufacturing execution and design after thoughts has the sentiments and feels as if it were ‘designed by committee’. All completely diametrically opposed to the Germans and Japanese.

They have some really smart and talented people working over there day and night trying to get this of the ground. But I think they are ultimately victims of “market research”, bureaucracy and “policies, procedures, processes” that are outmoded and increasingly irrelevant.

I’ve been told that the people have been given the mandate to design with vision both in technology and aesthetics. Sounds great, but in practice this is far from the truth. Brilliance ultimately surrender to focus groups and marketing research that I can only presume to guess that are aimed towards folks in their mid-30s to mid-50’s that live in the Midwest or Florida. (on a side note: I feel that this is whats killing the American automobile industry. The American automobile industry is designing for that market and not the ‘emerging’ younger market. To stay ahead of the curve, it is critical to understand the minds and hearts of the early adopters and the younger generation – because ultimately, it is they that you must sell to when they are slightly older)

The concept itself is very pragmatic in its approach. Leverage as much of the existing technologies and manufacturing techniques to manage cost to market.

The Volt is designed in such a way to be a mid size sedan that runs on batteries for 40 miles and then use a one piston gasoline driven generator to eventually drive the electric motor once the car has depleted the battery pack. I like this idea, it is yet to be determined if it’s a winning approach. Primarily this approach is designed to address the “anxiety” that surrounds Electric Vehicles: “Will I have enough power”.

Ultimately, it’s these two factors that would lead to failure of the Volt.

It seems reasonable to use “Leveraging” but in reality it is the “binding constraints” that make it ineffective. Leveraging usually has the artifacts and trappings that initially made you seek out to build something new.

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