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What's Dragging Down the Volt? And What Can We Do Now?

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  • Felix Kramer
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 7, 2012
      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?

      (Shortly after it goes out on email, this posting will also be
      viewable at http://www.calcars.org/news-archive.html -- there you can
      add CalCars-News to your RSS feed.)

      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?

      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.

      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
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