Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does the Volt Really Exist?

After a decade of hype, General Motors is poised to start taking orders for the Volt, but does the Volt really exist? And obviously, the Volt does not yet exist in a mass-production sense, so the question is, can General Motors really deliver it in the near future, in quantity before the end of the year, as it has promised? Or, could it be nothing more than a publicity stunt to support the company’s stock offering, with the actual car to follow months later?

It sounds like a crazy question until you consider what’s at stake for the company. If Volts start to trickle out of the factory only in March and don’t ship in volume until July, perhaps with specs that have changed yet again, then it has lost some of its revenue opportunity, and thousands of customers might be disappointed or disillusioned. But if its stock offering fails, then there is no more General Motors. How much would you be willing to say about what you would be able to deliver if you knew the future of your job depended on what you said?

And there are several more reasons to wonder about the Volt. There is the secretive nature of the car’s release (in spite of the massive hype surrounding the name), with no one quite sure they have seen or reviewed the actual car. That’s the kind of uncertainty you expect for a car that will be shipping in four to eight months, not one that goes on the market in a few weeks. There are the many changes in specs, radically different this month from what the company was talking about last month, which was already a complete change in style from the concept cars seen at auto shows for longer than some of us have been alive. The scarcity of photos to accompany reviews also suggests that the final appearance is still being worked out, which in turn means that engineers could not have gone far in designing the assembly process. And then there is the extraordinary divergence of impression among the reviewers so far: the natural result of looking at a first-of-its-kind product, or are different reviewers looking at and driving very different cars?

There is no question that General Motors is committed to the idea of the Volt, but the revelation days ago that the Volt will not be an electric vehicle after all, but a plug-in hybrid, makes you wonder how fixed and stable the company’s objective is. If a detail as essential as the vehicle’s power source could change, then anything at all could change, and we are left taking a wait-and-see approach to the entire initiative.