Selling a car the iPod way

Chevy is hoping to tap into the same sentiments that spark gadget fandom with its new Volt electric car. But is the crowd at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival the right audience?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
CNET's Caroline McCarthy in the driver's seat of a Chevy Volt test vehicle at SXSWi. CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--Analysts reported on Saturday that Apple sold 120,000 units of the iPad, an untested device that the vast majority of consumers have never seen or touched. Can you tap into that same gadget mania to sell an electric car?

General Motors thinks so. The company's Chevy division is a sponsor of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), which it's using as a test platform for all sorts of edgy social-media marketing projects, but perhaps more importantly, it's previewing its forthcoming Chevy Volt plug-in electric car. The skeleton framework of a Volt was set up outside the Austin Convention Center, and Chevy had cleverly sponsored gadget-recharging stations around the venue for attendees to juice up their phones and laptops.

Alternative-fuel cars are typically marketed to environmentally conscious consumers or to buyers who hope to save on high fuel costs. But with the Volt, GM believes that it can find an additional target market in people who are drawn as much or more to the edgy technology of the Volt as the environmental or economic benefits.

Behind the wheel of the Chevy Volt (photos)

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I got to drive a Volt on Saturday morning. It's a blast. The touch-screen console and accompanying mobile application are sexy. And the idea of plugging a car into the same outlets where I can charge my laptop and iPhone is just awesome. This kind of marketing is selling a car as though it were a high-end smartphone, not an automotive vehicle--a way to make your life simpler, edgier, smarter, and more mobile.

I own a high-end smartphone (with a cringe-worthy bill every month), as well as an overpriced laptop that a Steve Jobs keynote convinced me to blow a paycheck on and some headphones that Bose swore would make my iTunes library sound better. But I don't own a car and don't foresee myself wanting one for, well, years.

I'm not alone in my sentiment at SXSWi. The challenge for Chevy, as well as any other automaker that hopes to target the high-tech futurists who tend to prowl around at SXSWi, is that they're addressing the same crowd that likes to talk about ditching cars altogether. These are the people who get giddy about the potential of new high-speed train routes, decorate their bikes with stickers from the dot-coms where their friends work, and wax philosophical about public transportation. Many of them are coming in from cities like San Francisco or Washington, D.C., where car ownership is optional, and New York, where it can be an outright inconvenience.

The majority of the 15,000 SXSWi attendees probably do own cars. But unless they're the sort who have cashed out their start-ups and splurged on a Ferrari, most of those people are buying cars for practical reasons, not out of some kind of sexy-gadget impulse. They're looking for one that will fit their kids (the Volt is a small four-seater), hold all their ski equipment (can the Volt make it to Tahoe on one charge?) or get them to and from the office in the absence of public transportation. And on that last note, I'd argue that SXSWi attendees are far more likely than the population at large to commute on mass transit, ride a bike, or work from home.

At the Volt driving course on Saturday morning, I told GM representatives that I don't own a car--and neither do most of the tech industry types I know in either New York or San Francisco--and they asked me what might make them want an electric car. True, they'd pretty much drool over the zippy little Volt and its accompanying software and iPhone app, and they'd appreciate having an electric car in a city where gas stations are hard to come by.

But I said I'd wager that every single one of them would rather spend a few hundred bucks on an iPad than on two months' parking garage fees. And auto insurance is just about as sexy as that cable bill that geeks love to talk about ditching.

The SXSWi crowd will most definitely talk about the Chevy Volt. They'll tweet about it, blog about it, and collect the commemorative virtual items on Gowalla. Using gadget-style fetishism to sell a car historically has worked with ultra-high-end aspirational vehicles that only a select few can afford (ahem, Tesla Roadster), the stuff of glossy muscle-car magazines--and that's not the Volt. Applying that tech fever to a mainstream sedan is a more complicated game.

Though, come to think about it, Steve Jobs probably could make it happen.