Still waiting for GM's city car 'revolution'

When the troubled auto giant said it had big news in urban driving, CNET News reporter Martin LaMonica was hoping for something different than a two-seat Segway that looks like a futuristic rickshaw.

First, a confession: I am not much of a car aficionado. I truly appreciate the beauty of sports and luxury cars of different vintages, but when it comes to buying, I think about practicality.

So when I received a media alert on Friday that GM was going to unveil a "revolutionary vehicle to help people move through crowded cities" and solve other urban driving ills, I got excited.

The actual news was a bit of a letdown. GM and Segway showed off a two-wheel prototype vehicle based on Segway's scooter platform that lets two people tool around the city at 35 miles an hour on electric power. GM touted the vehicle's OnStar wireless communications to let people communicate with each other and stay clear of other vehicles.

It's an interesting way to rethink urban transportation. But it doesn't strike me as something that will make a dent on GM's income statement anytime soon.

What I really was hoping for was a GM mini-car. Something that's electric so it reduces in-city pollution. Small so that it can fit into tight spaces and ease congestion. And cheap so people around the world could afford it. That would show some innovation around fuel efficiency and offer proof that GM is serious about weaning itself from selling SUVs and trucks as passenger cars.

In fairness, it's worth noting that electric vehicles are a challenge in urban settings because people typically don't have a garage to plug into. But perhaps the community support automakers are seeking for electric vehicles could take the shape of charging pedestals or municipal fleet purchases.

Martin LaMonica/CNET

We've seen GM tout high-tech solutions before, arguing years ago that fuel cell vehicles were not too far away. GM certainly wasn't alone in that pursuit--which continues today--but hydrogen cars still need major technical breakthroughs to become practical.

The much-touted Chevy Volt, due by the end of next year, has a whiff of this high ambition as well. It's a "no compromise" car with both a battery and an internal combustion engine that will give people "hundreds of miles" of driving range, according to GM executives. An internal combustion engine acts as a battery generator for longer rides. The big battery will give drivers 40 miles on a charge but it takes up the middle of the back seat, making it a four-seater.

The company last week said that the Volt will have clever features like smart charging using its OnStar communication service that will let people schedule charging during off-peak times to potentially get cheaper rates. We can also expect the latest in car gadgetry like multiple displays and digital music services.

A high-volume seller?
Many people are excited by the Volt--the GM-Volt.com Web site, which was started by a Volt enthusiast with no affiliation with GM, has a "want list" of over 47,000 people.

By contrast, government auditors are lukewarm on the Volt platform, which GM plans to use with an Opel sedan in Europe. In its initial findings, the administration's task force said that the Volt was promising but "likely to be too expensive to be commercially viable in the short term."

General Motors hasn't said how much the Volt will cost but executives say that it's already working on a second-generation electric powertrain focused on cutting costs significantly.

Other automakers are placing some or all their bets on the all-electric route. Ford , Toyota, Nissan, Tesla Motors, and Detroit Electric are promising a driving range in the neighborhood of 100 miles or more per charge. In response to a poll I included in an article, over 80 percent of almost 700 readers said that a 100-mile range on batteries suits their needs for either a primary or second car.

Tesla Motors' CEO Elon Musk--who, admittedly, has a strong bias toward pure-electric vehicles--didn't have kind words for the range-extender concept of the Chevy Volt either.

A prototype of a Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility vehicle, unveiled on Tuesday. GM

In an interview with GM-Volt.com on Monday, he said that a range-extended electric vehicle is "neither fish nor fowl and ends up being worse (in our opinion) than either a gasoline or pure electric vehicle." Because of technicalities of battery types, the Volt's 40-mile battery pack is roughly half the size of a 200-mile battery pack for an all-electric vehicle, he said.

Certainly, gas-electric hybrids make sense. There are those like the Prius that run mainly on the gas engine and others like the Volt that run all the time in electric mode, augmented by the engine. Bright Automotive this month will unveil a plug-in electric that will get a 100 miles per gallon. Fisker Automotive's forthcoming plug-in electric luxury cars will have a range of 300 miles. Toyota and Ford have both said they expect gas-electric hybrids to be the dominant platform over all-electric vehicles in the years to come.

But for a revolution in city transportation? How about a cheap, small, low-polluting car, even one that's not electric? And why are only auto start-ups participating in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize contest to build a 100-mile-per-gallon car? If 100 miles per gallons is an achievable bar, then incumbent automakers need to learn how to do that profitably.

GM has some very good cars in its portfolio and I have a lot of respect for the people I've interacted with in the past several months writing about GM and electric vehicles.

But when it comes to product design choice, count me as a consumer who is wowed by innovation around fuel efficiency, reliability, and cost rather than the big concepts and bells and whistles. Sometimes high tech comes in a small and simple package.

 

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