What's Dragging Down the Volt? And What Can We Do Now?
- Many plug-in advocates have been feeling frustrated about the Chevy
Volt. It's an inspiring example of innovation, a milestone of
advanced technology, and a pioneering vision of how to start getting
off fossil fuels. Now its factory is closing for five weeks to clear
inventory. What's the Volt's future? Can it resume its successful trajectory?
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POLITICAL FOOTBALL: As GM CEO Daniel Akerson told Senators in
January, the Volt has gone from "technological wonder" to "political
punching bag." For some examples of how a car welcomed by the Bush
Administration first turned into "Obama's car," then became a product
that critics hoped would fail, see Joe Romm's roundup at
WHERE ARE WE ON THE ADOPTION CURVE? For over a decade, the Gartner
consulting firm has been situating products and technologies along a
graph it calls the Emerging Technology Hype Cycle. See an example at
. It features a rapid rise of expectations, fueled by early adopter
enthusiasm, with an early Peak of Inflated Expectations followed by a
rapid slide that ends in a Trough of Disillusionment. From there,
SUCCESSFUL products go through second- and third-generation
refinements and gradually rise through a Slope of Enlightenment to a
Plateau of Productivity. How will the Volt get through the Trough?
WHAT'S THE LIKELY IMPACT OF THE FIVE-WEEK THE PRODUCTION HALT? We
fear that without energetic responses, opponents will tarnish the
Volt as a failure. Advocates have our work cut out for us -- and we
can't just look backward or gripe! For some insights, green car
journalist/consultant Michael Coates evaluates the GM work stoppage
based on his deep experience in automotive marketing. Centrally, he
points out that a slowdown is better than a glut. See
. The 65 comments to date, many of which include replies by Coates,
are very much worth reading!
NO RETREAT: It would be a mistake to conclude from the pause that
it's time to ratchet DOWN our expectations for the Volt. We still
need to find ways to get hundreds of thousands of them on the road.
All the energy security, climate, economic and social benefits
impelling GM and the world's auto industry to evolve still hold. The
Volt and other plug-in vehicles remain at the core of a global
imperative to get off fossil fuels ASAP.
PRICING: In these challenging economic times, more buyers need to
know they can lease a Volt for about $350/month. And purchasers need
to hear Volt owners crow that they got a BMW-level car at half the
price. Though the Chevy Cruze is often in the same showroom (and
dealers may make more money selling them), GM needs to re-position
the Volt so it's NEVER compared to this budget car with which it
shares a "platform." Volkswagen has managed to avoid people wondering
why they should buy an Audi when it costs so much more than a Passat.
And will anyone ponder whether to save money by buying the new Dodge
Dart instead of the same-platform Alfa Romeo Giulietta?
SAFETY: Quick headlines about battery fires partly eclipsed
appreciation of the Volt's universally stellar safety ratings. We
find humorous responses most effective: "If you crash your car, don't
stay inside for a few weeks. And make sure you don't leave it turned
upside down until it's repaired." GM did a good job with its customer
satisfaction policies and safety modifications. And in December, it
took only a hundred or so Volt owners declaring "We're keeping our
keys" on Facebook to counter much of the unprincipled misinformation.
SALES REPUTATION: Pointing out that first-year Volt and Leaf sales
far exceeded initial Prius levels didn't offset negative headlines.
Now that GM has halted production for five weeks in a catch-up move,
advocates and owners need to step up their visible efforts. We can
only imagine how things would be different if automakers maximally
leveraged their satisfied customers as their best allies. Sites like
http://www.facebook.com/groups/chevyvoltowners/ and the new
http://www.voltstats.net help -- but the message has to go beyond that.
HAPPY VOLT: GM has just launched a new series of videos showing
owners http://www.chevroletvoltage.com/index.php/videos.html . But
just as many were put off by the Volt Superbowl ad showing strange
aliens and awkward people, the first three of a promised dozen ads
feature people with unusual names making odd points, sometimes in
foreign accents or drowned out by music. GM could spotlight
reassuring people saying, "I love my Volt. It drives just like any
other car -- just zippier, quieter, and using almost no gas." CNN
found one easily:
RECRUITING BUYERS: As the automakers pitch their cars through ads and
social media, advocates can build on their efforts, with a harder
sell than GM's ads. At least four constituencies can be buyers: fans
of early technology, people who don't want to fund
petro-dictatorships, environmentalists, and the LOHAS market segment
(tens of millions of households willing to pay more up front for
Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability).
GO FOR THE GREEN: The quickest response can come from the
environmentally-focused car-buyers. Green groups' websites and
newsletters already promote the benefits of plug-in cars. Their
members may have missed much of the negative spin. And they'll be
receptive to the message that switching to a plug-in car could have a
greater impact on their "footprint" than other purchases.
WE URGE CALCARS-NEWS READERS to ask their organizations to transform
current informational efforts into CAMPAIGNS. Just as they have done
for compact fluorescent bulbs, hybrid cars, and rooftop solar, they
can urge their millions of members to buy PHEVs and EVs and
distribute branded plug-in bumper stickers. They can tie in to other
networks to offer every member a test-drive with a happy owner.
Imagine how quickly even one group with hundreds of thousands of
members could generate tens of thousands of sales. That turn of the
tide could leave automakers with a challenge worth having: building
enough plug-in vehicles to meet a steadily-growing demand.
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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