The shocking truth about the Chevy Volt
The electric Chevy Volt has car reviewers going gaga and is being heralded as an overnight game-changer. And Gene Weingarten really, really wants to hate it.
The trouble is, he doesn't.
The humor columnist, Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and professional skeptic, who hasn't owned an American car since 1985, agreed to test drive the Volt. In a Washington Post Magazine cover story, he chronicled how the vehicle won him over and what it means for car lovers everywhere.
Weingarten was online to take questions and comments about his story, the Volt and more on Jan. 31. The transcript is below.
Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.
No, the story did not get me laid, but thanks so much for asking.
I know you have a lot of deep feelings about this story and questions you want answered, but overriding all of this is your burning desire to see my electric motor working. So, here it is.
I got a hundreds of e-mails from people who have never before read my stuff -- car buffs who found links to this story on automotive blogs. Roughly two-thirds of those people found my oddball, semi-literary approach refreshing; the remainder complained that the story was devoid of important scientific facts, dagnabbit. To this last group, I apologize. Please accept this in the spirit of conciliation: "149 hp/368 pound-feet, planetary gearset, tourbillon motors, 260 Wh/mile, maximized torque-kilowatt ratio, c-pillar, fusion curve."
At washingtonpost.com, of course, "comments" quickly turned into a spirited, angry debate over (this is true) the merits and shortcomings of the Obama administration.
I have to say that all critical comments have rolled right off my back, because, sometimes, as any writer knows, only one person's reaction truly matters. Such was the case here. I got a complimentary email from Paul, of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Because the sexual intercourse angle and the do-it-yourself electric-motor angle were so vital to the profound journalistic integrity of this story, a few minor observations regrettably could not fit in for reasons of space, including my one actual, serious complaint about this car: Rear visibility isn't very good. To minimize air resistance, the Volt's architecture has been so sleekified that the back slopes away too steeply; you are looking back over your shoulder at a slit. It's about as vision-friendly as that half-moon cut in an outhouse door. Volt owners tell me you quickly get used to this.
There was also no room in the story for my important speculation on why GM named this car The Volt:
If GM was aiming for an homage to an electric-era scientific pioneer, there were only a few obvious names. One was Nikola Tesla, who did important early work in electromagnetism -- but that name was already taken by another electric car company. That left two more possibilities. The first was Alessandro Volta, who is generally credited with inventing the battery. I speculate that GM went with Volt rather than name the car after the third guy, a more modern-era engineer who pioneered in developing the lithium-ion energy-storage technology central to the operation of electric screwdrivers, cell phones and The Volt. Using his surname might have been a problem. Who would buy a car called the Chevy Goodenough?
There are two imprecisions in the story that I'd like to clear up: I marveled at the fact that if the user runs only on electricity for months and months on end, to the point that the gas in the tank begins to degrade, the car senses this and warns him. That's true. But it turns out it might not even be necessary to get the old gas siphoned out, as the story suggested. The car has a "maintenance mode" that slowly drains the engine in little sips over a year -- probably, if everything is working well, and things time out just right, that system will take care of the bad-gas problem before it happens.
Secondly, I said that electrical energy in California is greener than in Pennsylvania, which is true, but I also implied it was primarily because of California's preference for nuclear power. It's not. It's because Pennsylvania gets about half its power from coal, and California gets almost none. Cali is big on natural gas and alternative energy sources.
Finally, I want to mention an e-mail exchange I had yesterday with a woman named Lucy O'Meara. Lucy was glad that the story described the elegant way the Volt slips seamlessly from electric power to gas-assisted electric power. Her son, Thomas O'Meara, was the gifted GM engineer who developed the software to make that elegant handoff possible. Thomas died of lung cancer in August, just a few weeks before he would see his project of a lifetime roll off the assembly line. He was 44.
The description of the power handoff almost didn't make it into the story. I'm so glad it did.
And the poll: Your take on the Volt
Okay, many fine questions await. Let's go.
washingtonpost.com: Producer has a case of the Mondays. Sorry about the formatting mishap above. (Ed.: This has been fixed since the live chat)
Gene Weingarten: I hope you like our new easy-to-read formatting!! We thought we'd do it this way in deference to The Volt, which is, after all, a compact.
Somewhere in there is a poll. See if you can find it.
dionysianmadness: Here's one problem: the car is basically designed for suburban and rural homeowners who have garages they can store the car in for overnight recharge.
Anyone who lives in an apartment, condo, co-op, or a house with no driveway? Sorry, no Volt for you!
Sure, you could string an extension cord out the window or across the lawn, but all it would take is a neighborhood kid to unplug it and you'd have a dead Volt in the morning. Plus, could you even string an extension cord across a sidewalk one way or the other? One person trips and sues you...no Volt for you!
Within Washington, DC itself, what percentage of people does this eliminate from owning a Volt? The vast, vast majority, I would guess.
Really, residents of every single urban area are precluded from buying Volts because of this.
Maybe at some point employers will offer charging stations in their garages as an extra benefit, but even then, that would be feasible for only a fraction of workers.
There is nothing wrong with the concept of the electric car, but I wonder if GM's midwestern myopia resulted in their forgetting that there are many, many Americans that do not live in detached single-family homes with garages.
Gene Weingarten: You are mostly right. I, for example, could not easily own this car. I live in a row house in a downtown area, and I park on the street. I'd have to snake a power cord out my mail slot (window invites burglars) then HOPE that I can get the spot in front of my house, and then HOPE that no prankster unplugs me.
Many of my neighbors, however, do have garages. And I would have an option of renting a space in a parking garage nearby.
But you're right: Essentially, this only works conveniently if you have access to a garage or a driveway. And if your commute is in the range of 30-40 miles, you will also want an employer with a parking lot that has some power plugs. (Increasingly, more will.)
Silver Spring, MD: I read the article. I viewed the online gallery. I scoured the paper magazine. I was bereft. No picture of K.C. Hernandez. No Pulitzer for you!
Gene Weingarten: I really ought to address the methodology here, because it was excruciating.
The very first decision I made when assigned this story was that I would do the would-you-sleep-with-me stunt. I thought it would be funny, and also easy and painless, because of how dorky and un-threatening I am. (Laura Blumenfeld once told me that women feel comfortable with me because I seem "safe, like a gay uncle.")
I seriously miscalculated the degree to which young women are creeped out by talk of sex from strangers, even old-man strangers whom they could probably beat up if need be. I spent about three hours, total, on the streets, trying to get women to play along, until finally, Ms. Hernandez did. I know I made many women uncomfortable, and if any of them are reading this, I apologize. Trust me, I was making myself even more uncomfortable.
A reasonable question would be: Yeah, well, why did you keep doing it? There are two answers. The first is that I knew if I could get someone to cooperate, it would make for a funny anecdote, regardless of what her answers were.
I'll get to the second reason in a moment, after a bit of a digression. After getting turned down horribly a few times, I modified my initial question. After introducing myself as a journalist and apologizing in advance for what, absent context, will initially seem like a very rude question, I initially asked: "Theoretically, based on my appearance and demeanor alone, what are the mathematical chances, based as a percentage, that you might conceivably have sex with me?"
This got VERY bad results.
I learned to replace "have sex with" with "have a romantic relationship with." That proved less appalling. It's true that I then had to specify sex, because that was the question I really needed answered, but beginning it more softly put women more at ease.
In all I approached about 18 women; three answere. One said "two percent," but then refused to walk with me to look at the car. It was from that early encounter that I realized I really needed to have the car very close at hand.
A second woman said 50 percent! But she then explained that I happened to look a lot like her husband, also a messy old guy. This lady was European. The problem with her is that she then looked at the car and said it would not affect my chances one way or the other, because she's not shallow enough to judge a guy buy his car. Not great for the story.
The third was Ms. Hernandez, to whom I am very grateful. If you are reading this, ma'am, I know I made you a little uncomfortable, too. You fought through it, were a good sport, and I appreciate it. You should know that I sensed your discomfort enough that I didn't do what I always do when I get a quote I think I'm going to use in the story: Ask your phone number, for followup questions. You're welcome, I'm sure.
As to the final question -- which several readers asked: How could I bring myself to do something this creepy? I want to quote from my book, the Fiddler in the Subway. This is my introduction to a story I wrote about the French:
"People sometimes ask me if I am comfortable doing the sorts of things journalists occasionally must do: Embarrass people, invade their privacy, write things that will provoke, disturb, or injure. I answer honestly that I am not comfortable with that at all, but that The Machine is.
"The Machine is what I become when I am reporting a story. It is rational but soulless. It thinks but does not feel. It observes basic rules of fairness but is impervious to emotion. It is a stranger to guilt. It cannot be humiliated. The Machine operates always under a single rule: Within the limits of human decency, it always does what is necessary to get the best possible story.
"This story was assigned at a time when the French government -- zut alors! -- was daring to insinuate that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unjustified. The mood in America was hostile. Diplomatically, both countries were walking on eggshells. My job was to head over there in hobnail boots, and behave like a real jackass.
"Yes, I had a problem with that. Fortunately, The Machine did not."
Same thing here. I like the irony: To write a story about a machine, I had to become one.
Arlington, VA: Was the cover illustration the first-ever portrayal of your spouse to accompany your work?
Gene Weingarten: No, Eric has drawn The Rib on a few occasions. He has met her, and the caricature is reasonably close. The Rib is prettier, of course.
Leesburg Florida: While the goal of the car is good. What have you found out about the cost of the "plug-in/recharge" vs going to the pump? If you live in an area where the Kilowatt is high this car is a budget killer
Gene Weingarten: Yeah, it's true. Electric power, for example, is very expensive in California. Instead of $1.50 a day there it may be more than twice that.
I believe BUT AM NOT SURE that in general, right now, the cleaner the electricity is, the more it costs. I think this is changing.
Leonardtown MD: You do not deserve to be called a journalizt and I strongly berate the Post for even publishing your story. The sexual references are despicable and lend nothing to the story. If you cannot write a decent column without bringing out all the bedroom talk you need to find another job.
Gene Weingarten: Okay, I would suspect that this posting is a joke, except I have received two or three emails making the same point.
So, sorry if this offended you. I think most people took it in the light spirit it was intended.
Editorial: Did Charles Lane's Friday editorial rain on your parade?
washingtonpost.com: Cold Truths on Electric Avenue (Post, Jan. 28)
Gene Weingarten: No.
Whoa: Did you get that hairstyle after a mishap with those jumper cables, or do you always look like an electrocuted Muppet?
Gene Weingarten: Amanda McGrath, the producer, notes that "Electrocuted Muppet" would be a great name for a heavy metal band.
Washington, D.C.: How is this not just a 4000-word ad for Chevy?
Gene Weingarten: Hey, dude, sometimes, you just like something. I once did a piece on Garry Trudeau that was just a 8,800-word ad for "Doonesbury."
I didn't lie about being predisposed to hate this car. It wasn't just my distrust of American cars: I am naturally a contrarian, and most real reviewers loved The Volt. If I could have responsibly panned it, I would have.
But if it's any consolation to you, I know nothing about cars. It's possible I missed all the bad stuff, and it actually sucks.
Washington, D.C.: Is the Volt and the parts it is constructed from made in America? Or is this another Great American Invention that China will be piecing together?
Gene Weingarten: My memory is that it's about 60 percent American.
electricity and combustible gasoline: Does this car have potential hazards of using electricity to charge it in one's garage when it contains gasoline? How have the GM engineers managed to prevent the possibility of unintentional combustion?
Gene Weingarten: I never asked this question, but I know something about liability lawyers and large companies. I am predicting the chances of this occurring have been reduced to essentially zero.
Bear, DE: Hi, Gene. Great story. One comment: the CIA guy said he is going to buy the 2013 Volt since GM hopes to have it running on ethanol. Well, AL Gore just abandoned ethanol as an environmentally friendly fuel, especially when it is made from corn or sugarcane. Apparently, corn-based ethanol is driving corn prices up and by extension food prices while not saving much in pollution. So GM better have their 2013 Volt run on twig-based ethanol otherwise the car would not be environmentally friendly!
Gene Weingarten: Mr. Woolsey is very very big on ethanol. I cannot speak to the Gore-Woolsey nexus.
"Trust me, I was making myself even more uncomfortable. ": This is probably not true--you're still grossly underestimating how uncomfortable we get when strange men come up to us and ask us about either "romantic relationships" or sex. It happens quite often to a lot of us, even those of us who don't look like supermodels, and there's no way for us to know whether the guy asking is scruffy looking because he's a creeper, or scruffy looking because he's a devil-may-care two-time Pulitzer Prize winner on a mission.
Nice car, though.
Gene Weingarten: Could be, though I was very clear about who I was and why I was asking and that this was in good fun, and if they don't feel like answering I'll go right away toot sweet.
Baltimore, Maryland: So, what would be the theoretical chance that your next car will be a Volt, expressed as a percentage?
Gene Weingarten: Probably zero.
Part of the problem is the aforementioned city-living thing. But part is that I buy cheap cars. The sticker price here is simply too high for me. The spiffiness of my ride is not a big factor for me. I'd rather spend the money on great restaurants. Dental care. Etc.
Gene Weingarten: Actually, there's another factor, larger than either of the two above.
I will NEVER buy a car without a manual transmission, unless at some time in the future there are literally none to be had. Most stick-shift drivers understand that; no slushboxers do.
Tysons Corner, VA: What is your theoretical chance of winning another Pulitzer for this story, expressed as a percentage?
Gene Weingarten: About the same as my odds of buying the car.
Ft. Lauderdale , FL: The Volt is expected to cost $41,000 and I'm sure that this is a base price without options/tax, etc. Regardless of its green/hybrid nature, is the car REALLY worth $41k to you ?
Gene Weingarten: Well, the real cost is closer to $36k with options and whatnot. The car comes with a $7,500 tax rebate. That's not a tax CREDIT, it's a rebate, meaning you just deduct the amount from what you owe. It's real money.
As I said, still to expensive for me.
"Powered by Coal.": "Powered by Coal."
ha hahahahahaa. the whole article is a set up for that punch line. the american car industry: going backward to go forward.
Gene Weingarten: Actually, the whole article was a set up for my getting the genius chief engineer on the phone and squandering this opportunity to ask him how to make my motor run.
Bethesda, MD.: How does the Volt do stuck in traffic, say on the Beltway, when traffic is tied up due to some accident or snow, and the Volt is running out of energy and gas? Might the Volt then become part of the traffic tie up?
Gene Weingarten: Well, it's no different from any other car that might be running out of gas.
If you're in a Nissan Leaf, that's another matter.
Gene Weingarten: Alert to all: Hidden in that massive block of type in the intro are 1) A poll, and 2) A video of my electric motor.
Chevy Chase: Are the pictures you or a model?
Gene Weingarten: Hahahahahaha.
This reminds me of Durwood Kirby. When he was warming up the audience for the Garry Moore show back in the 60s, he'd be asked from time to time what his real name was. He'd answer: If I weren't named Durwood Kirby do you think I'd ever call myself that?
Garry Moore was Garrison Morfit, Jr. By the way.
I am VERY old.
Ballston, VA: I don't have a Volt, but I have had a Prius since 2007, which suffers a similar rear-view problem for similar reasons. I did, in fact, adapt to it pretty quickly. But then, I was always one for the over-the-shoulder check every time I change lanes, anyway.
Gene Weingarten: Yeah, this was explained to me by Brady Holt, though I didn't really understand it. Apparently a sharp sloping back is VERY much more aerodynamic.
About those outhouse doors: It is a crescent moon, not a half-moon, that is traditionally cut into outhouse doors. I'm sure you'd want your readers to have the correct information.
Congratulations on informing the public via hilarity, as you so often do.
Gene Weingarten: Ah, yes, crescent.
Perhaps I was subliminally afraid of offending Muslims with the outhouse reference.
wiredog: I've owned 2 GM cars. Both 70's rustbuckets which died before they had 100k miles. So I will never buy a GM
2 Fords, one 75 Granada and one 89 Merc, both of which also died before 100k miles. I will never buy a Ford, either.
3 VW Bugs, 2 65's and a 74, all three of which were purchased from junkyards and kept going for 2 more years with over 200k miles on them. Great cars.
I got 105k out of a Mitsubishi before it got totaled in a wreck, and my Honda Element has 105k and is still going strong, although the upholstery is a bit worn.
Gene Weingarten: My two best cars, hands down, were a 1991 Mazda 323, and a 1978 Doge Colt, which was, despite the name, entirely manufactured by Mitsubishi.
Washington, DC: Okay, so you've found out that the Volt can get a guy, even a guy who looks like you, chicks. Sort of. Maybe.
Has anyone tested the reverse? Can a female driver pick up male pedestrians with this car? And has anyone tested this with same-sex and/or non-gender normative variations?
Also, is anyone else seeing the weird question-mark-in-diamond characters in the introduction? Gene, are you using smart quotes again? I have so many questions.
washingtonpost.com: I broke the chat! Sorry guys. Will fix in the transcript.
Gene Weingarten: I am guessing that women do not want to be able to pick up male pedestrians.
Philadelphia, Pa./: Speaking of the romance aspects of having a Volt, what does the design of the...ahem..back seat look like for purposes of...ahem...two people using the back seats for purposes the back seats were not originally intended?
Gene Weingarten: As I said in the story, not very good. You'd be limited to the backward cowboy.
You didn't answer the most important question...: So, how are the cupholders?
Gene Weingarten: It's fine. Also there is a "hidden cubby" (Brady Holt's term, not mine) for stowing stuff in front of the gear shift.
Anonymous: Not your best work.
Gene Weingarten: Well, this isn't your best post, either.
Downtown, DC: Um, "electrocuted muppet" was a regular sight gag on the Muppet Show, involving Professor Bunsen Honeydew and his remarkably loyal assistant Beeker down at Muppet Labs ("Where We're Inventing Tomorrow Today!").
washingtonpost.com: It's true...
Gene Weingarten: Thank you.
Kirby: "This reminds me of Durwood Kirby...I am VERY old."
Not old enough!! It's DURWARD Kirby.
Gene Weingarten: Also, thank you.
NoVa: Loved the article, Gene, but is there any chance that the money you save by buying cheap cars could be spent on, um, hair care?
Gene Weingarten: About the chance of Ms. Hernandez ACTUALLY sleeping with me.
Which reminds me, my favorite email so far, from Bob Miller:
Does a 3 percent chance mean that if you see her 33 more times she will probably have slept with you on one of those occasions?
Towson, MD: The question I've heard raised about electric and hybrid cars is about the cost and availability of repairs and maintenance.
What does anybody know about getting an electric or hybrid car repaired? How much would it cost and how long will it take? Where would a driver be able to get this done; is it only the dealer?
Gene Weingarten: Just this morning, I asked my mechanic, who runs a good inner city auto repair shop. She (!) said they wouldn't touch a Volt.
So, yes, it's probably gonna be dealer-only, at least for a while.
Important: Another fact a competent, real reviewer would have known to put in the story: It comes with a very long warranty on the main battery. I forget if it's 8-year or 10-year, but the point is, they are standing behind that sucker.
DC-area availability: I was interested in the Volt before your article came out; now I expect they will be even harder to find. What have you heard about their availability in the DC area?
Gene Weingarten: It's all about waiting lists. If you want this car, get your name on one.
Ithaca, NY: As a feature writer, you must often find yourself working in an area covered by someone else. In this case, the Post has an auto columnist in Warren Brown. How do you manage your relationships with the "owner" of a particular topical area at the paper - when they might justifiably feel a bit territorial, especially given that you get a lot of column inches and a cover and they likely are required to live within a more constrained 'box'?
Gene Weingarten: Warren's a friend. I actually didn't talk to him about this in advance, but I doubt if he feels stepped on. The whole point of asking me to do this story is that everyone understood that what would result -- whatever it was -- was NOT going to be an automotive review.
I wanted to get the facts right here, and to generally tell a truth, but mostly, as I think most of you understand, my prime goal was to entertain.
Arlington, VA.: Would Dana Milbank buy a Volt?
Gene Weingarten: Not sure. What IS clear is that Charles Lane wouldn't.
Madison Avenue: The popularity (I accidentally wrote poopularity, then realized you might actually find that funny)of the Volt will depend on how it is advertised? Do you think the public will buy it has "sex appeal." After all, it does appear to increase your chance of having sex by 0.5%.
Gene Weingarten: Ah, see, I believe your math is in error. It improved my chances a lot more than that: By five out of thirty-five, or about 13 percent (quick math)
Centreville, VA: I would have liked to have seen a more extensive investigation of the sexual angle. For example -- why didn't you ask any men what the odds of have sex with you would be, apriori/pospriori knowledge of the Chevy Volt? You could have brought Gina along and have her ask the same question of both men and women. I think I'm talking Pulitzer-worthy material here! Or perhaps GM might have paid for the research -- I could see a little blurb at the end of advertisement ... "Chevy Volt clinically proven to up your odds of getting some by 10%".
Gene Weingarten: You clearly have thought about this a great deal.
You do not deserve to be called a journalizt : Fortunately, the rest of us realize that what you are actually called is a journalist.
Gene Weingarten: It might have been a misspelling of Journaliszt. Possibly he or she was declaring me a virtuoso.
Suburbs: Gene, I was mortified to see you wearing that Argyle sweater as you contemplated your failures as an electrical engineer in the slideshow. The reason - I got the exact same sweater for Christmas from a well known area men's clothing store (I suspect you got it there too). As someone who takes pride in what I wear, I am now concerned about my attire, since I apparently have similar tastes to a self-described slob. Sigh.
Gene Weingarten: It's okay. It was a Xmas present from the Rib. She has tastes.
Union Station: Why women are overly cautious can be seen in this report of seemingly nice guys asking for normal things and then stealing your shoes! It's hard to be a woman on the street nowadays.
Gene Weingarten: No time to read it, but it sounds great.
Washington DC: I learned to drive on a manual transmission, loved it, still do, feel superior to those who can't, etc etc. (Lady-type person here, early 30s and hot, for the record.) But I grudgingly switched to an automatic when we moved to the city. When you're doing lots of parallel parking and stop and go driving and rarely getting over 35 mph, it really is more practical. But... if I could have a car without a transmission, I think I might prefer that altogether. Manual transmissions are superior to automatic for the degree of control you have, assuming you are smarter than the car. But as I read your article, the Volt is smarter than you. Are you saying you'd rather drive a dumb car that needs you to tell it how to work? This isn't a better automatic... it's a whole new idea. I like the sound of it.
Gene Weingarten: I like the whole process of driving a stick. It's just fun.
Springfield, VA: I know two people who are firefighters and it is my understanding that they must take special classes to learn how to safely rescue people from electric cars so as not to harm themselves. Any comment on that aspect?
Gene Weingarten: If you're right, that's interesting. But I am too dumb to know if you are right.
Hot Stick Shifting Hottie: As a fellow manual car devotee, I share your disdain for automatics. I get that there is no disdain to have when there is no transmission, but what about the sheer joy of shifting? That's part of what I love most about driving. Is there anything that replaces that joy? I can't see myself ever buying a non manual car.
Also, off topic, I saw your story posted online on Friday. I didn't read it because I then would have had nothing to read on Sunday morning when I got my paper. I knew to do this only because I've been tricked before into reading a story early. Post them whenever you want, but is there any way to put some kind of note when stories are going to be in the paper the next day? When it's not breaking news, I'd rather read it on the dead trees over breakfast.
washingtonpost.com: Even when we publish Magazine stories early online, the date that appears at the top of the page reflects the date it will appear in print. So if you come across an article that's dated for the future, you might want to hold off.
Gene Weingarten: Nota bene.
Oak Hill, VA: Where's the cover illustration? Please share.
washingtonpost.com: Check it out on the Magazine's Facebook page
Gene Weingarten: Nota bene.
Anonymous: Gene, the burning question is how many women you had to ask before you found someone to play along? How exactly do you go about propositioning women for a newspaper article?
Gene Weingarten: I have already answered this question!
Leesburg: Gene, Thank you for another heartbreaking, gasping story that you alone have the courage to bring us. I cried when that little motor struggled to be born; I hope you don't mind if I use this story as the basis of my sermon next week. Thank God for you.
Gene Weingarten: Bless you.
Plug in hybr, ID: Doesn't the plug in Prius do the same thing as the Volt?
Gene Weingarten: I don't think so. A plug-in Prius, as I understand it, is simply an ordinary Prius that lets you recharge the battery overnight. But when the gas engine is running, it is powering the wheels, not just recharging the battery. It's more of a traditional hybrid.
It happens quite often to a lot of us, even those of us who don't look like supermodels, : And for those who do look like supermodels, it's even worse. Remember the story a year or two ago about Mrs. Dennis Kucinich, a tall beautiful model, who was approached in a restaurant by a total stranger who asked her to dine with him sometime, even though she was ACTUALLY HOLDING HER HUSBAND'S HAND ACROSS THE TABLE at the time?
Gene Weingarten: Well, I totally get this. She was holding Dennis Kucinich's hand.
Washington, DC: Regarding Bob Miller's question, and your chances of having an extra-marital affair with a woman on the street who was simply humoring you for a story: doesn't that depend on whether your 33 meetings are dependent or independent events?
Gene Weingarten: I'm sure it does.
herndon, va: Mr. W: Garry Moore was, I believe, Thomas Garrison Moffat. Also, since Warren Brown and I don't know how many other experts say the new automatics save more gas than the "sticks," why do you insist on having one? After driving in stop and go rush hour traffic for more than a few minutes, using a stick is just one more item to drive you crazy.
Gene Weingarten: I am almost certain it was Morfit.
Omaha, Nebraska: Gene: Am important detail was missing from your otherwise Pulitzer-worthy article (is that enough praise to warrant a response?!?)
What about the trunk?
I drive a 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid and one frustration is that unlike the regular Civic we don't have the fold down seats to expand the trunk space. This also means that our trunk space is several cubic feet smaller than a conventional Civic.
I am not expecting the trunk space that one would get out of a 1970's era American gun boat (my wife's first car was a Ford Granada), but I was wondering if the Volt has enough trunk space to store some luggage? Fold-down seats would be a nice plus, but I think I could grit my teeth and continue to live without.
Your loyal reader in flyover country, Tom
Gene Weingarten: Pretty roomy trunk. And I'm pretty sure the seats fold, too.
(See, a REAL car guy would know how many cubic feet the trunk was, and would know for sure about the folding seats.)
TKPK: I think I would have said yes to the romantic involvement, if for no other reason than you remind me of a young (and undead) Kurt Vonnegut. But the car would not have affected your chances, making for bad copy.
Gene Weingarten: Thank you. And yes, for my purposes I needed a change in number. Up or down didn't matter.
Math: Actually, it increased your odds by 5 out of 30, so 16.7%. Sorry, I'm a geek.
Gene Weingarten: Right. Thank you.
Pulitz- errrr?: I enjoyed this article. I wish you'd had a few more hundred words to really tie things together, but I thought you did a great job with it. I had other people read it, as I found it worthwhile.
Now, I see the totally predictable comments about how this isn't your best work.
You know it's not. One cannot consistently surpass one's finest. And I also believe that you knew, as you approached this article, that this would not compete with the deterioration of a culture in Alaska, with the tragic consequences of a moment's forgetfulness with a child in your car, with a study of the way we mindlessly overlook beauty.
So, how much of a challenge is it to approach an article that you believe will be interesting and worthy of a read, but just plain will not have the human implications of some of your other feature work?
Gene Weingarten: I had fun with it. I loved doing it. I got paid fairly. I'd do it again. And thanks for asking.
Alexandria, VA: So what happens when you reach the end of the combined gas/electric range? The Volt cannot run on gas alone to keep going until you reach your destination, correct?
To me, this would be a deal-breaker. My wife and I are a one car family and we frequently take long roadtrips to visit family and/or go on vacation. It seems like the Volt would be PERFECT as a second car, but probably wouldn't be sufficient to replace an only car.
Gene Weingarten: You misunderstand the car. The Volt can run indefinitely, so long as it has gas. The gas engine acts as a generator for the battery, which runs the motor.
Dennis Kucinich: Now I feel really bad for him. Chipped his tooth on an olive pit, his wife gets hit on when he's sitting right there, the only good thing Joe Biden had to say about him during the '08 primary debates was, "I like his wife," and now Gene Weingarten, of all people, is trashing his looks. Poor guy.
Gene Weingarten: I am NOT trashing his looks. That's an outrageous accusation, and I take offense.
I am trashing his manhood.
Anonymous: is the volt worth the money?
Gene Weingarten: It depends on how high you value novelty. It's a very cool car. I don't think anyone -- even GM -- will argue that this is the most cost-effective car you can buy, or the greenest. It's just a nifty concept.
Norway: Thanks for your great story on cheese steaks. We need a website to map those very few places that serve real cheese steaks. The only place in VA I know of is in Lynchburg. Any time I'm in VA, that's reason enough to go down to Lynchburg.
Gene Weingarten: That's range anxiety. What if you get there and the place is closed? Can you find another good cheese steak before you run out of gas?
Arlington, VA: Gene: I enjoyed the article, but the part I found most surprising was your use of the word "guesstimate" ("Those figures, he says, are just momentary guesstimates that fluctuate with temperature and terrain, and that self-correct over time"). I would have expected you to HATE that word. Personally, I think it has its place, but it seems like "estimate" would have worked just as well here.
Also, thanks for addressing that whole "We have to cut down on electricity"/"We have to make all our cars use electricity" dichotomy. That's bugged me for awhile.
Gene Weingarten: I was going to get on my high horse here and argue that there is an important connotative difference between guesstimate and estimate, but my argument is crumbling as I weigh it.
Okay, maybe I wrote that line in a stupid, flouncy, cutesy mannered way.
Too quiet!: I am a bicyclist, and since I live in Maryland (as opposed to someplace like Amsterdam) I have to be constantly aware of the cars around me, to avoid getting hit. I have a rear-view mirror on my bike, but I also depend on hearing the sound of a car approaching from behind. A Prius passed me on a rural road and I never heard it coming. It scared the crap out of me when it was suddenly beside me. All electric cars need to make some kind of noise, to give the pedestrians and bicyclists a chance to hear them coming.
Gene Weingarten: I agree. My point on the snide hork-snork line is that they probably want to consider a different sound.
Great article: Gene, what a great article. Fun but with a serious core. I noticed it was quite a bit shorter than your other cover stories (the gambling clown; Joshua Bell; death of kids). Was that your intent, or is the new Post Magazine unwilling to accept that its readers are interested in the kind of depth and texture that only come from an article longer than 500 words?
Gene Weingarten: This column pushed the new length-limit for the Post magazine. I can't argue it really deserved more space. I didn't feel squeezed.
Tampa, FL: I've heard it has issues with the cold weather, batteries get taxed then range is reduced.
Gene Weingarten: The battery is definitely less efficient in cold weather, though I drove it in the cold, at it was still performing pretty well, mile-per-mile, as compared with the projections. In really cold weather, you will probably get 25-30 miles out of that battery, as compared to 35-40 ordinarily.
Tallahassee FL: For years GM was hyping the Chevy Volt as a true electric car - with just an engine to charge the battery if needed. Now we find out that it is just another hybrid with a gasoline engine connected directly to the drive wheels. Why did they dupe us about this - it makes one not trust the establishment? I have a Prius and really like its "normal" transparent performance of 40 MPG while hauling 5 people anywhere. I would love a real electric car - like the leaf with a backup emergency generator - like GM promised.
Gene Weingarten: This is not fair. Almost all the time the engine is NOT driving the wheels. There are a few circumstances when it does -- very fast acceleration and at a very narrow band of highway speed. But it's primarily just charging the battery. And it's not even ON when the car is running on electric only.
Reston, Va: Cars that run on compressed air are being built in Europe. Competition....
Gene Weingarten: There is also some technology being developed in Israel and somewhere else that treats all-electric cars like backyard propane grills: You drive into a service station and they swap out your pooped battery for a newly charged one. A five minute operation.
Gene is right: Both Wikipedia and IMDB say that Garry Moore was born Thomas Garrison Morfit, in Baltimore, MD.
washingtonpost.com: So it does.
Gene Weingarten: I knew it. Thank you.
Arlington, VA: Is there a common standard for the charging stations you need for these electric cars? Or does each manufacturer make its own proprietary system?
Gene Weingarten: It's a good question. I believe they will be interchangeable, and all at double strength: 240-power lines, like for your washer-dryer.
Gene Weingarten: If anyone knows different, please pipe up.
L'enfant Terrible: I think the electric cars should all sound like angry charging grizzly bears. Wait 'til the cyclists hear THAT coming the first time.
Gene Weingarten: I'd favor a nice low throaty moan, Bacall style.
Centerville, VA: Your article also got me thinking about another matter; I was on a business trip last week and was "propositioned" by a waitress in a restaurant while eating alone. I'm happily married, so the request essentially resulted in a funny story between my wife and myself. However, I took the piece of paper with the phone number and email address with me -- not to use, but because the waitress seemed nice and lonely and I guessed that the prospect of something happening might have made her feel a little better about herself at least for a short while (BTW, no illusions about my looks, strictly average -- oddly enough I get stopped about twice a week for someone to tell me how I look exactly like somebody else they know). Should I have rejected her outright, or was taking the note and throwing it out elsewhere the way to go?
Gene Weingarten: I'd like to hear from women here.
I think I would have turned her down gently, with a compliment. "I'm married" is a perfectly good, non-painful excuse.
What YOU did increased the likelihood that she'll be sitting by the phone. You dumped her.
Other option: email how flattered you were and that she seemed nice, and hot, but you're married, etc.
Baltimore, MD: To answer the charge-up cost question: I ran the numbers on the Nissan Leaf yeaterday after reading the Travel piece on a reporter who schlepped through California in a Nissan Leaf while helping herself to apparently-FREE electricity the whole time: Based on Nissan's figures and the published kWh rates in California, the Leaf costs about $3.50-$4.00 per full charge. Around here, maybe $2.75-$3.00. If you choose a "green" energy supplier: lots more.
washingtonpost.com: In Los Angeles, an EV rider
Gene Weingarten: Thank you.
More relevant names: Possibilities from electrical history: Ampere, or Amp (so-so), Faraday (think about it, it might work), Watt (what?), Hertz (ouch!), Henry (bland, also to tied to Ford), Siemens (yikes! although you might like it), Ohm (sounds like chanting).
Gene Weingarten: Actually, "Ampere" sounds like one of those stupid made up sound car names. Elantra. I actually like the look of the Elantra. Would not buy it, I think, on account of the stupid name.
Wait. I had a Nissan Stanza. That's even a stupider name. So never mind.
Dunno where I saw this, but ...: ... I've read that either Toyota or Honda will add a low-level noisemaker of some sort to their now-silent cars, for pedestrian/bike safety.
Great chance for a contest to pick the noise. In memory of the recently-deceased Charely Callas, I'd go for "Ptthhht!!! Ptthhht! Ptthht!"
Gene Weingarten: Ooh, that reminds me: For you regular readers, tomorrow's chat update will be fun. I have a Charlie Callas thing that leads to a great piece of trivia.
Springfield, VA: I think you meant backward cowgirl, unless you were leaning towards the gay audience...
Gene Weingarten: I did! Thank you.
Gene Weingarten: Someone is asking for a link for how to build the electric motor.
I can do better: At the end of the chat, I will append MY system, as amended by the chief Volt engineer. It is very cool.
Washington Lady: Just saying you're married is better than accepting the number. No reason to give false hope. If the reason was that you weren't attracted to her or something, I might change my answer. But there's nothing about your being married that harms her self esteem (though not calling most certainly will).
Gene Weingarten: yeah.
Hey, the greates lonely, sexually hungry waitress I've ever seen in film was in The Sting. AND....
she turned out to be...
a hired killer.
Car Sounds: I think that electric cars should have customizable sounds, just like cell phone ringtones. I feel sporty one day, I can have the sound of the Indy 500. I feel mellow the next day, a little Brahms concerto. Want to make a bicyclist aware, have the sound of a snarling Dobermann... want to warn a pedestrian, a big booming voice yelling STAND BACK GRANDMA!!!
It could be a big money maker.
Gene Weingarten: You know what? I agree. That would be great. I bet someone is working on this.
Trenton, N.J.: What would happen if a semi hauling a full load of magnets were to drive next to a Volt?
Gene Weingarten: Hahahaha.
Dealing with those magnets was not kind to my watch, by the way. One negative with an old, mechanical watch: Magnets screw em up.
Response to wiredog: We have two cars, one with 128K miles and the other with 145K miles. Both are still solid and dependable, and I wouldn't hesitate to take either of them on a cross-country drive. There's a good chance we'll take them both to 200k, at least. Both are Chevys.
Gene Weingarten: I'm putting this in PURELY as a thank-you to the GM exec who lent me the car.
Gene does not look like an electrocuted Muppet: He looks like Frodo Baggins in middle age. Which is fine. I love Gene's hair because it reminds me of the great release from the tyranny of the crew cut in the late 60s and early 70s (as my husband remarks, The Sixties were from 1965-1975). Granted, some awful hair appeared then, before men stopped just letting "regular" cuts grow out and started getting their hair actually styled, but still, it was a Great Awakening. I would kill for curly black locks like Gene's.
Gene Weingarten: My hair would actually look pretty good if I ever used a comb or brush on it. Sadly, I do not. Hence, electrocuted muppet.
Clockmaker: So when you finally resorted to a magnifying glass and tweezers, were you more satisfied with your "triumph" with the contacts, or successfully repairing an old clock?
Gene Weingarten: Nothing, including heroin, compares with the buzz of fixing an old clock.
Atlanta GA: Can you post the link for instructions about building the electric motor? My 7-year-old is a budding engineer and I think he'd love it.
Gene Weingarten: I will. Will do it now. It'll take about five minutes, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, thank y'all for a festive chat. I'll see many of you back tomorrow, I hope, for the trivia-intensive Chat Update.
Gene Weingarten: Okay, you basically need to go to two stores: Radio Shack and some place where you can get large, or assorted size, safety pins. You should make some calls to find the right Radio Shack, because they don't all carry magnet wire and magnets.
From Radio Shack: A length of "magnet wire." You'll want many feet of it, because you'll make some mistakes. Fifteen feet is probably enough. It comes in varying thicknesses: You want one thin enough to coil tightly, but thick enough to remain rigid enough to form an axle. I think the proper size is 278-1345, but you'll know it when you see it.
You'll also need a couple of feet of ordinary electrical wire, insulated. Small gauge, maybe two millimeters wide.
Also, a few magnets roughly 3/4 inch to one inch in diameter. They can be round or square.
Also, a D-cell batter. C will also work, or a 9-volt, but I got best results with a D.
Also, safety pins. The ones you will wind up using are about two inches long. You'll need two. Best to buy several sizes, so you can experiment.
Get a platform of some sort -- just a small piece of wood is fine, something four inches by four inches or larger. Bend the safety pins near the head into a 90 degree angle, so when you screw the heads into your platforms, the shaft sticks straight up in the air. The holes at the far end (the fulcrum of the pin) are the holes through which the axle will spin.
Screw them into the board roughly an inch and a half to two inches apart. Between them, on the board, you will have a stack of two or three magnets.
Now, the hard part: Start coiling the magnet wire around either a AAA battery or a crayon, in tight coils, maybe 12-14 times around, to form an armature -- a tight circle. It's okay if it's a little ragged-looking. Wrap each end once around its side of the the coil, tightly, to hold the coil in place, and then leave about an inch of axle sticking out straight on each side.
The most important step: Take a nail file -- better yet, as I found, was a single edge razor, and scrape off the insulation on one half of each axle. One side only. The two bare sides must be the same. The bare half must correspond to a certain position of the coil: So when you are scratching off the insulation, and that side is facing up, the coil needs to be also facing up. Hm. This is hard to explain. Wait.
Okay, you can file everything I have just told you, and forget it. Here it is, explained better than I just did.
You are welcome.
Gene Weingarten: The difference between this design and mine is that I anchor the motor on a base, and run the normal electrical wire from the battery to the screws holding the safety pins down.
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