Chevy Volt May Not Cut Efficiency Mustard

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Robert Siegel speaks with John Voelcker, editor of GreenCarReports.com, and senior editor of High Gear Media Inc., about why the Chevy Volt may not qualify for a California Tax Rebate of $5,000, and why single drivers of Volts may not be able to use the HOV lanes in California, as the Nissan Leaf drivers will.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Obama is arguably the nation's electric car booster in chief. He has championed federal loans to automakers to build them and tax credits to consumers to buy them.

As a candidate, he pledged to put a million plug-ins on the road by 2015. But according to what John Voelcker reports, in California, those brand new Chevy Volts may be on the road soon, but they may be stuck in the dinosaur lanes, not in the HOV lanes.

John Voelcker is editor of greencarreports.com and joins us now from New York. Hi.

Mr. JOHN VOELCKER (Editor, GreenCarReports.com): Hello.

SIEGEL: And how is it that GM and Chevrolet can't advertise the Volt as a car that'll get you to work cleaner, but get you there faster because you'll be in the fast lane?

Mr. VOELCKER: When GM had to make some decisions about the equipment they were going to put in the Volt, some of the rules weren't exactly defined. And so they had to make a decision for tooling that they would equip the Volt's engine for a certain level of emissions. It's - there's a complicated taxonomy. I won't go into them, but they decided to take it to a clean level but not a sort of an uber clean level.

And as the rules for HOV lanes access were written at that time, that did not qualify the Volt to get in, whereas zero-emissions vehicles like the Nissan Leaf electric car are allowed to get in.

SIEGEL: But the Chevy Volt, from what I've read about it, is a car that - if you're not going more than 40 miles that day, it won't burn any gasoline at all. It'll be just be going on its battery.

Mr. VOELCKER: That's exactly the case. And it gets even more ironic because there's a vehicle coming out in 2012 called the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which is essentially like a current Prius but you can recharge a larger battery pack by plugging it in. That vehicle will run at lower speeds on electric power only.

But if you take it on the freeway at freeway speeds, its engine switches on. And yet it's designed for this other emissions level that in fact does let it get on the HOV lane. So you have this paradox where the Volt, which can run with no emissions in electric mode at freeway speeds, does not get in, whereas the Prius Plug-in Hybrid will get in despite running its gasoline.

SIEGEL: Access to the HOV lane without any other passengers in the car is one privilege for fuel-efficient cars. But there's another one. California has a pretty hefty rebate if you buy a car that qualifies. And the Volt doesn't qualify?

Mr. VOELCKER: That's correct. The highest rebate, $5,000, goes to an all-electric car like the Leaf. It was expected that the Volt would qualify for something like $3,000, but in fact that same emissions level is required to qualify, so it does not.

SIEGEL: Now the California Air Resources Board told us today that they haven't yet decided on the rebate or an access to the HOV lanes. Is this just a case of a regulatory body not yet having dotted the Is and crossed the Ts, or is there a problem of substance awaiting this plug-in car?

Mr. VOELCKER: The regulatory body has known about the Volt for a couple of years now. GM has to make its decisions on a much longer time horizon. So, certainly, CARB could go in, create a new category or tweak its rules. But as the rules stand at the moment, the Volt doesn't qualify.

SIEGEL: When President Obama was visiting Detroit today, GM announced they're going to increase by 50 percent the number of Volts that they will produce. You pointed out that isn't necessarily a real increase.

Mr. VOELCKER: Well, they have said for many years, they're executives, both on and off the record, that in the second and third years of production, 2012 and 2013, they would have the ability to produce 60,000 Volts a year. So, the increase to 45,000 for 2012 is still well within that capacity. And I guess what I'm saying is this is not necessarily something new or different. This is simply an announcement that they are committing to a higher production number than they did on July 1st.

SIEGEL: An announcement assisted perhaps by a presidential photo opportunity.

Mr. VOELCKER: It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that.

SIEGEL: John Voelcker, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. VOELCKER: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: John Voelcker, who is editor of greencarreports.com, spoke to us from New York.

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