GM reveals that what they've been claiming about the Chevy Volt isn't true. And they knew it.

I’ve been talking about the Chevy Volt, GM’s alleged all-electric drive passenger vehicle, for a long time, now. I’ve been a fair advocate for it, too, happily explaining the story GM’s been telling to anyone who had any interest in it at all. And that story, in a nutshell, has been this:

  • All-electric drive. Unlike hybrids like the Prius, Volt’s wheels are moved by electric motors and nothing else.
  • Battery-powered range of about 40 miles. Equivalent mpg: 230 miles/gallon
  • On-board “range extender” motor that provided electric power when the batteries have run dry.

In the last couple of weeks, as the Volt has neared its public debut, the story started to change. Rather than say she was good for about 40 miles on all-electric, they said it was more like 25-50 miles, depending on conditions and driving style. OK. Not what they’d been promising all this time, but certainly understandable. After all, the guy in an exact duplicate of my Toyota in the lane next to me won’t get the same gas mileage I will if he’s jack-rabbitting away from the lights and sailing along at 80 mph and I’m accelerating at a more modest pace peaking out at the speed limit. Fair enough.

Then have come the reports from independent trade magazines where the mileage per gallon on the Volt is being observed at a helluva lot less than 230 mpg. It’s more like high-30’s mpg. Wait a minute. What’s up with that? I mean, they did all of their testing on the actual cars, not just on paper. They never noticed that they were getting something like 200 mpg less than what they figured they would?

But finally, in the last couple of days as GM has made the official unveiling of the production of Volts public, a teensy detail came to light.

The car’s drive train is not all-electric. It’s got a mechanical linkage to the “range extender” gas engine. In short, the gas engine is also turning the wheels, meaning that the Volt isn’t an all-electric vehicle. It’s a hybrid. Perhaps it’s a more advanced hybrid than what’s on the market currently, but it’s still a hybrid.

That’s leading to the perception that GM, basically, lied about the car. Ray Wert at Jalopnik.com writes:

The Chevy Volt  has been hailed as General Motors’ electric savior. Now, as GM officially rolls out the Volt this week for public consumption, we’re told the much-touted fuel economy was misstated and GM “lied” about the car being all-electric.

In the past, and based on GM’s claims, we’ve gone so far as to call the Volt GM’s “Jesus Car.” And why wouldn’t we call it that? We were told the Volt would achieve 230 MPG fuel economy and would always use the electric drivetrain to motivate the wheels — only using the onboard gasoline engine as a “range extender” for charging the batteries. It now turns out that not only were those fuel economy claims misleading, but the gasoline engine is actually used to motivate the wheels — making the Volt potentially nothing more than a very advanced hybrid car and pushing some automotive journalists like Scott Oldham at Edmunds.com to claim “GM lied to the world” about it.

A “lie” is a deliberate falsehood made with the intent to deceive. “Deliberate falsehood” means that the statement isn’t true and the party making the assertion knows that when the assertion is made. I’m seeing all kinds of people basically trying to blow this off by saying that people won’t care what’s under the hood or that it really doesn’t matter how it works so long as it achieves the goal of putting a highly fuel-efficient vehicle on the road. Businessweek is among those. They give a passing nod to the notion that GM has, though these evasions, put itself in the position to be open to criticism. But in the end, they say, it really doesn’t matter. Ditto at KickingTires at Cars.com.

But the issue isn’t really about the benefits of one technology or the other – or, more properly, whether the benefits actually exist or not – but about the credibility of a company whose record in this field ain’t the best already. GM’s actions regarding the Chevy Volt, and how it’s been portrayed to the buying public, is just a high-dollar bait-and-switch. Frankly, if the company weren’t already owned primarily by the exact organization who would normally be responsible for investigating it I would be surprised if the fraud units at the DoJ didn’t come knocking on their door.

Of course, the DoJ is part owner of GM, now, so you can rest assured that won’t happen.

Sebastian Blanco at autobloggreen.com gets to the heart of the matter:

For others, well, the Internet was ablaze today with claims that GM lied to us all (the Car Connection was a contrarian voice). There certainly is a case to be made either way, but we wanted to remind readers of Bob Lutz’s appearance on the Late Show with Dave Letterman in May of 2009. Back then, Lutz said:

“A typical hybrid is (where) the gas engine drives the vehicle most of the time. So, you’re using less gasoline, but you’re still basically driving a gasoline-powered car and the gasoline engine actually will drive the car through the transmisssion and then sometimes the electric motor will drive it. In the case of the Volt, the batteries always drive the car.

Emphasis obviously added and you can watch the video after the jump (the comment comes at about 1:50).

We don’t know enough about patent law to know if what GM told us today – that it couldn’t reveal all the details (like the mechanical link between the gas engine and the wheels) before today because it was waiting for a response from the U.S. patent office about the patent’s status – hold legal water, but we don’t know of any law that says you have to say what Lutz said on national television.

(Emphasis mine.) Exactly so. This isn’t a matter of people just “misinterpreting” something. GM told everyone this stuff, explicitly. Ray Wert at Jalopnik.com sums it best:

GM is a company desperately in need of the positive public relations that come from exceeding the bars it sets for itself. Right now the company needs to realize that its credibility bar has not only not been exceeded, it hasn’t even been met. Yesterday’s attack from us was not against the Volt — although GM PR is treating it as such — it was actually against the company that built it. GM still needs to realize that, after years of saying one thing and delivering another, it has no credibility for anything that even remotely resembles a lie.

And let’s be clear here — this is being perceived by many as a lie. A statement by GM’s Phil Colley admits at the very least they weren’t up front with the technical details, claiming they “did not share all the details on how the system works until now because the information was competitive as we awaited patent approvals.” That may explain why the company wasn’t up front, but it doesn’t give them carte blanche to indignantly huff and puff now that they’ve been called out on a discrepancy, no matter how minor, between what they said this summer and what they’re saying now.

And that’s the specific point – that a company that has routinely over-promised and under-delivered needs to be doing things better and more above-board than the other guys. Their ownership is going to bring an even greater visibility to everything they do so everything they do has to be 100% sterling. This situation wasn’t even close and they need to improve, quickly, if they want to survive to be bailed out again.

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