x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Range against the machine

Purely electric cars will always be limited, but hybrids, like the Volt, Jay Leno feels are an ideal combination

The Chevrolet Volt has no mechanical connection between the engine and the drive train. At no point does the engine drive the wheels. It drives the generator, which makes electricity, which drives the wheels.
The Chevrolet Volt has no mechanical connection between the engine and the drive train. At no point does the engine drive the wheels. It drives the generator, which makes electricity, which drives the wheels.

I road-tested the new Volt in December 2009. It's what your average American would drive to work every day and it's coming to Britain in 2012 as the Vauxhall Ampera. It's what is called an extended-range car. It's not meant to be a sports car; it's not a Tesla. And I was very impressed with the technology. I was in a Tesla the other day, road-testing the new model. And that's $150,000 (Dh550,981). It uses lithium. It has a liquid-cooled battery setup, much like the Volt does, except the Volt costs $100,000 less.

I like the idea of the extended range. I've said this a million times. Electricity will take you halfway to where you want to go. I know people who tell you their electric car will go 100 kilometres on a charge, when they know it won't. I have a bunch of electric motorcycles and every one of them is guaranteed to go 60-100 kilometres on a charge. They don't. They go 45. I've had to push them home because they just stop.

Most people get range anxiety. I mean, I was lucky enough to have one of the original General Motors EV1 electric cars. And it said 130 kilometres per charge. You'd go down the road, pass somebody and put your foot on the pedal. And you could see the range go down to four miles. Then you'd take your foot off and it would be 80 kilometres. Every time you used the pedal it would fluctuate between empty and full. It was nerve-racking. It got to the point where I knew if I left my house and went directly to the office every day I'd be fine. If I had to go off on a side trip, to run an errand, I'd be sweating.

And that's the cool thing about the extended-range electric vehicle (EV). It's electric only for as long as it can be, and then it just turns into a petrol car you can use like any other car. The Volt has no mechanical connection between the engine and the drive train. At no point does the engine drive the wheels. It drives the generator, which makes electricity, which drives the wheels. I think that's the best way to go.

For technology to succeed, it can't be equal to its forerunners; it has to be better. I don't know any electric cars that are better than petrol cars. BMW makes an electric Mini. It takes a Mini and removes the rear seats, so now it's a two-seater. Then it makes it electric, so it weighs more and has less cargo-carrying capacity. You can't go nearly as far and now it costs more money. What's the advantage?

The electric Mercedes SLS, the electric Audi, these are cars I'd love to drive all afternoon. But I can't. I can drive them for maybe an hour and then I have to go home. I never got the Volt to kick in with the petrol. You get 60 kilometres free, essentially. You take the car home; you plug it in. If you plug it into a 240V outlet it takes four hours to charge. If you just go to work and come home every day, you can go a month or two without using any petrol at all. But if you have to drive to Vegas or something like that, at the end of 60 kilometres the engine seamlessly cuts in. You don't even notice it: there's no jolt or mechanical override. And you drive it as a normal car. The designers have done everything they can to make it look like a typical Chevrolet. It's meant to be a practical car. It's what Americans would call mid-size.

I've got my hydrogen fuel cell car and that's GM also. It's great, but you have to find a hydrogen filling station. That's for a dedicated enthusiast. But for any of this stuff to take off, it has to be tempting to people who couldn't care less about saving the planet; they just want it because it's a good deal. Take the Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid: if it goes faster, handles better and looks cooler than a Ferrari or some other car and just happens to do 78mpg, then rich guys are going to buy that because it's cool. And it's the same with this. It's a car you can drive every day without even knowing that you're not spending any money on fuel.

It's going to be on sale in America soon. I was impressed with the engineers. It wasn't that long ago that GM would introduce a new feature and it would be some personal-luxury-type item - a sound system or heated seats - not necessarily a technological breakthrough. It's fun to see GM put engineers at the forefront. I like the Tesla; I think it's great. But I'm one of those people - if I want to buy a pizza, I buy a large one in case I'm hungry. I know I'm not going to finish it but I get a large one. If I hire a car I get the unlimited mileage. I know I'm only going 50 miles this weekend but I want the unlimited mileage in case I want to go farther. I'm someone who's always got that range anxiety thing. I don't like knowing I can drive only 140 kilometres today.

That's what I like about the Volt. It's an electric car only until you need to use the engine. It goes pretty good. It's 100 per cent a normal car. I don't think anybody would be able to tell it was electric. What always used to happen with the American car industry was that they'd tell you it cost the same to make a small car as it did a big car. Petrol prices would go up. People would buy foreign cars. They'd come out with a stop-gap measure, some poorly designed small car. Petrol prices would fall a bit - 25 per cent - and then they'd sell trucks and SUVs again. That's always been the thing.

Now they're trying something totally new and I think it's pretty cool. I see the engineers excited about this. It's real engineering. It's not as if they've taken a standard Chevrolet and somehow hidden batteries all around it. It's a totally new platform; the batteries go up the centre of the car. It's well put together. It's clever engineering. The Volt is not one of these hybrids like the Toyota Prius, where you're going down the road and you put your foot down to overtake suddenly and the petrol engine kicks in. No. It exhausts its electricity and then the engine will start up and make more.

It's not an inexpensive car. In America $30,000 (Dh110,196) seems to be the tipping point. If you can sell a Mustang with a V8 at $29,999, you'll have a million buyers. As soon as it goes to $31,500 you're in trouble. The Volt is about $40,000 (Dh147,000), but there'll be government rebates and whatever, and that'll appeal to people. And if petrol prices continue to rise, which of course they will, the Volt will start to make even more sense.

It's as if I installed solar power in my garage. I saved about $40,000 in electricity and my electric costs are fixed for the next 10 years. It's expensive, but it pays off in the end. So if, like most Americans, you travel 55-65 kilometres a day, you could go weeks without putting any petrol in the thing. Petrol in the US is also cheap, so we're the ones who need the Volt the least. It should do well in Britain where prices are much higher.

In the early 1900s Ferdinand Porsche built a car with four electric motors, one in each wheel. But EVs were always hampered by battery technology. They were popular at the turn of the 20th century. Women liked them because they didn't require cranking, and there was no smelly petrol or chokes or explosions, and manufacturers built them with froufrou interiors to appeal to female drivers. Consequently, you couldn't sell them to men. Mazda had the same problem when the MX-5 came out originally. It was seen as a secretary's car. So the firm went racing to prove the MX-5 was a gutsy little sports car.

But the real problem a century ago was the one you still have today: battery technology. I have some original alkaline batteries. Thomas Edison said in 1906 they were going to change the face of electric cars, triple the range, but of course they didn't. The Model T came along, petrol cars took off and the rest is history. Electricity is still theoretically the best way to power a vehicle. You have torque from zero. My Baker electric is a 1909 and I can climb any hill in it because I have so much torque in one gear. It's the same with the Tesla. People are astounded by the acceleration on the Tesla Roadster. It's a very fast car. Faster than the standard Lotus.