Interview: GM's Posawatz says future of luxury could be electric

At the Edison Awards ceremony last week, I got a chance to chat with Tony Posawatz, vehicle line manager for the Volt, about demographics, range anxiety, and why people complain about the Volt's fuel economy.

Liane Yvkoff
Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer who blogs about cars for CNET Car Tech. E-mail Liane.
Liane Yvkoff
4 min read

Despite a heavy marketing campaign and major public outreach, for some reason people still seem to think that the Chevrolet Volt is just an expensive hybrid with unimpressive fuel economy. But even if the public doesn't get the difference between serial and parallel hybrids, the folks over at the Edison Awards do--the Volt beat out the Nissan Leaf and the Copenhagen Wheel by Senseable City Lab to win the Gold medal in the Personal Transportation segment.

At the Edison Awards ceremony last week, I got a chance to chat with Tony Posawatz, Vehicle Line Manager for the Volt. Posawatz had the gargantuan task of bringing the Volt to market under intense public scrutiny from angry taxpayers and bitter battery-only proponents. That challenge was compounded by an unconventionally transparent development process, a marketing move that Posawatz says the company probably won't try again. Before winners were announced at the ceremony, we chatted briefly about demographics, range anxiety, and why people complain about the Volt's fuel economy.

CNET: With reports of drivers getting stranded in their Nissan Leafs, do you feel vindicated in your execution to the Chevy Volt?

Tony: We root for all electric drive technologies, but we learned from our EV1 experiences, and there's a reason why we chose to develop the Volt with the extended range feature. I famously coined the "range anxiety" in November 2006, and it is a real affliction. We think that if you want to develop and make battery-powered cars viable, you have to create an experience like a regular car. And regular cars don't have range anxiety because you have 150,000 gas stations you can refuel at. What the Volt gives you is the choice of a million outlets and 150,000 gas stations, so the customer can choose how he or she wants to refuel and drive their car.

CNET: There have been a lot of complaints online that the Volt gets only 35 mpg, which is on par with a Smart ForTwo. Do people understand extended range technology?

Tony: All cars have performance variation, whether in EV range or miles per gallon, that is based on what we call temperature, technique, and terrain. Temperature is the ambient outside temperature, which typically requires a response from the customer, such as turning your AC on or off. Technique is how aggressive you drive, and terrain is whether you're going up or down hills.

With the Volt, we've always said that its range will be between 25 to 50 miles on battery power alone. We have people who have exceeded that when the temperature is moderate, when their driving is efficient, and they're on flat ground.

Personally, I've driven the car continuously since September, and achieved very high numbers that I don't even want to quote because I don't want people to think they can achieve those same numbers. But I have my own techniques to maximize economy. The beautiful thing about the Volt is that in spite of any variation in electric range, you have a very unique insurance policy that allows you to go anywhere at any time, and not feel any concerns that the car is hampering your lifestyle.

CNET: Given that not a lot of people can go electric-only, who is the person that can get the most benefit from the Volt?

Tony: The technology guys like it a lot for the technology. If I were to oversimplify the customer, it's the commuter. It's not the long distance traveller--its the guy who commutes in from the suburbs. It's the person who typically drives less than 20 miles per day, but on weekends occasionally has to go longer distances. We have a number of our early customers that have not yet refueled because the Volt's portable cord allows you charge anywhere you have access to a wall outlet.

I'm fortunate enough to have a 240-volt charger at work and at home, so my charges are really quick: 3.5 to four hours max. When I drive 120 miles a day, I get nearly two-thirds of that driving on battery power from the grid.

CNET: I saw that the Mi-Ray won a design award at the 2011 Seoul auto show. Does this mean we will see this technology in a luxury high performance vehicle?

Tony: I can't comment on future plans, but I think one of the things we're seeing is that when the Volt first came out and highlighted extended range technology, there wasn't a large following. People were either in the camp of the hybrid, diesel, or the pure battery-powered car. What we're seeing now is that as people realize that this is solution that can replace the everyday car, I think we'll see more and more extended range vehicle technologies and different models, makes and body styles in the future.

Believe it or not, but because of its instantaneous torque, no transmission shift, and whisper quiet interiors there are people that feel it could be the definition of luxury in the future.