Over the holidays, while visiting family in Southwest Missouri, where I grew up, I saw one of the oddest sights on local roadways since armadillos started showing up as road kill: multiple Chevrolet Volts.
In cities and suburbs, cars like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S are pretty common. But Southwest Missouri is different. For a lot of people there, driving to work each morning is a long-haul proposition unsuited to electron power. People like the ability to haul a load of 2-by-4s. Besides, rural Missouri is not a place where electric cars carry cachet. They’re more likely to get you run off the road by a Dodge Ram 3500.
Yet there the Volts were, as mud-splattered and unremarkable as every other car on the road. It was a sign that in the four years since the first-generation Volt reached the market, cars with plugs have become (relatively) normal.
Chevy Volt sightings will soon become even less remarkable, in a good way. This morning General Motors unveiled a redesigned second-generation version of the plug-in hybrid, and aside from the sharp silver grille, it looks more like a Ford Focus or a Honda Civic than a car from the future. Gone are the geekier flourishes of the first-gen Volt: the ugly black stripe under the side windows, the instantly dated, iPod-inspired center controls. The new Volt will barely stand out in a crowd of Mazdas and Nissans. It is, in other words, a nice little car that any normal American would be seen driving.
Better performance could attract new drivers, too. GM and LG Chem, which build's the car's battery cells, have made progress in the past few years. (For a whole lot more on how GM and LG Chem built the first Volt, see my book Bottled Lightning.) The 2016 Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack holds more charge than its predecessor (18.4 kilowatt-hours) yet weighs 20 pounds less. That’s enough for 50 miles of electric-only driving before the backup gas engine kicks in. (The new Volt, like the old Volt, is a plug-in hybrid, with a gas engine on board, which means when the electrons run out, the car keeps running on gasoline.)
We don’t yet know the car’s price. We also have no idea how buyers will take to the Volt with gas prices at their lowest point in years. But the new Volt is a heartening sign that General Motors is thinking long-term. Twenty-first century carmakers need to be good at building cars that run on electrons. Plug-in cars make up a tiny portion of the auto market today, but that portion has increased steadily for the past four years. Gas is cheap now, but these things change. And restrictions on carbon emissions will only grow tighter in the years ahead—if not nationally or globally, then certainly at the state and regional level. The new Volt suggests that GM now appreciates how quickly these things can change. So far, Volt sales have been modest, and GM will probably continue to treat the Volt like a niche product. But it designed the new Volt as a car that could go mainstream if it needs to.