By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
General Motors' new plug-in electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, will go on sale in Washington and San Francisco first, the automaker announced this week, as it began laying plans to work with area government and power companies to ease the car's introduction.
Ed Peper, GM's North America vice president, made the announcement Tuesday at the Washington Auto Show. He said the cars should begin arriving in the two metropolitan areas in late 2010. In the meantime, the company is seeking policies and infrastructure, such as carpool lane access for Volt drivers and charging stations at work, to make the buyers' transition from gas to electric easier.
The San Francisco Bay Area was an obvious choice to be one of the first plugged-in cities, said Britta Gross, GM's architect of the plan. A warm climate combined with a wealthy, tech-savvy population has boosted sales of the Toyota Prius.
"They raised their hand before we even made the offer," she said.
The D.C. region's relatively high concentration of hybrid vehicles suggested people in this area were also willing to pay more for a vehicle with better fuel economy. Washington, along with Southern California and New York, is also testing GM's hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
"An East Coast location was important to us, too," Gross said.
It also helps to have an iconic car like the Volt close to Washington's power brokers, who will soon be considering additional federal loans for the struggling automaker, said Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. After all, when natural gas debuted, buses using the alternative fuel ran regular routes past California's state capital in Sacramento.
"You want your clean technologies to be very visible and build trust with public policy makers, even if city isn't the ideal in demographics or in terms of infrastructure," he said.
Hwang added: "What we're talking about is signaling to decision makers in Washington that the car is on its way to not just America, but to your garage."
First, though, the company needs to persuade people to buy it. Analysts said the car may initially cost $30,000 to $40,000 largely because of its advanced battery technology.
"Clearly we never made any secret out of the fact we're not going to make much money off the Volt until the cost of batteries go down," said Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman for global product development.
So the goal is to create strategies that make the pricey technology more attractive for Washington drivers, in hopes of eventually ramping up production. High manufacturing volumes means cheaper batteries and cheaper cars.
Gross, GM's manager of hydrogen and electrical infrastructure development, said the lack of incentives has hindered a mass migration from gasoline to alternatives fuels like biodiesel.
"We know cars don't sell themselves," she said.
GM has been working closely with the Electric Power Research Institute and a coalition of 40 utilities -- including Dominion Virginia Power of Richmond -- to solve development challenges of plug-in vehicles. And it aims to reach out to other utilities in the Washington region to ensure they can handle the surge of people plugging in their cars.
"We're always looking for ways to use energy wisely and planning for a reliable electric grid," Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said.
Federal tax credits could stimulate sales. GM is also urging state, city and county governments to give Volt drivers access to restricted carpool lanes and other benefits. In addition, the automaker hopes the governments themselves will become early adopters, setting an example by buying large fleets of plug-ins.
"The Chevy Volt is truly coming to life," Peper said, "but preparing the market for electric vehicles also requires capable partners from outside the auto industry."