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The Green Life: Chevy Volt: GM Unveils Hyped Electric Hybrid

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September 16, 2008

Chevy Volt: GM Unveils Hyped Electric Hybrid

Amid the hubbub of its centennial celebration on Tuesday, General Motors unveiled the first production model of its much anticipated plug-in electric hybrid car, the Chevrolet Volt. When charged overnight, the Volt can run for 40 miles--about a day’s worth of city driving--without burning an ounce of gas, according to company specs. If production goes according to plan, it would be good news for the 94 percent of American consumers trying to cut back on gas costs--not to mention enviros looking to shrink their carbon footprints.

But don’t throw out the gas card just yet. The Volt isn't scheduled to hit dealerships until November 2010, and it wouldn't be the first electric car to hit unexpected delays along the way. There’s no word on production numbers or pricing, either, so you've got at least two years to figure out how to run an extension cord out of your house and around the block to where your car is parked.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, commonly referred to as PHEVs, are cars that can run entirely on batteries charged from a standard 120-volt socket. When the batteries run out, the car runs off an on-board power source, such as a gasoline engine. While questions remain about how green the Volt really is, PHEVs could save consumers lots of money: GM expects the Volt to cost 2 cents a mile, compared with 12-15 cents a mile for a standard combustion engine. Assuming the grid can keep up with demand, PHEV technology represents a step in the green direction because grid power--even from coal-fired power plants--is generally cleaner and more efficient than gas-chugging, pollution-belching cars. What's more, if wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources begin to make up a larger portion of the electric grid (with no small amount of investment), the carbon footprint of a PHEV could shrink.

The Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate passed by the California Air Resources Board in 1990 spurred an initial period of innovation that birthed many of the Volt’s predecessors such as the GM EV1. (According to Time, by the way, this is one of the 50 worst cars ever.) When the mandate died, many automakers abandoned their creations

GM and other car manufacturers have responded to rising gas prices and increasing demand for cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles by developing new PHEV models in recent years. GM introduced the Volt concept car in January 2007 at the North American International Auto Show. 

But is it enough to make a dent in gas consumption and emissions?  “It now looks like most car makers will have small numbers of plug-in cars in the next five years." Says Felix Kramer, Founder of Cal Cars, a Palo Alto-based non-profit that promotes PHEVs. "But for consumers and the planet, ‘soon’ is not a good enough response. Because of climate change and energy security, we need plug-in cars that run on cheaper, cleaner, domestic electricity”

For those of you who can’t wait for a Volt in 2010 you can visit the Electric Auto Association for details on how to buy an electric car today. If you’ve got $6,000- $12,000 lying around you can visit Cal Cars for details on how to convert your dirty fuel combustion vehicle to a cleaner PHEV. Or you can just ride your bike wait for the cool cars of the future of to come out.

--Mario Aguilar

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