GM’s Volt

Don’t believe the hype. The GM Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is a threat to those who care about livability, equality and the planet.

For more than three years, General Motors has been touting the Volt and its ability to run for 64 kilometres on electricity before switching to a gasoline engine. In January 2007, the Financial Times concluded that the Volt was designed to counter the “halo effect that Toyota gained from the Prius, which rivals the iPod as an iconic product.” In fact, the Volt was originally named the iCar. “I admit,” said former vice-chairman of GM Bob Lutz, “that it [the Volt] has a secondary benefit of helping to re-establish credibility in technology.”

The lure of technological advancement has always been part of the automobile’s formidable ideological prowess. Popular journals, magazines and other media regularly portray the automotive sector as a forerunner of innovation.

While automakers spend huge sums on R&D the mode of transport is inherently inefficient. These 3000-pound metal boxes carry on average one and a half people, approximately 300 pounds – a mere ten percent of the vehicle’s weight. At the same, the car’s appetite for space is insatiable. Requiring 300 sq feet for home storage, 300 sq feet for storage at destination, 600 sq feet while traveling and another 200 sq feet for repairs, servicing or sale, an automobile occupies about 1,400 sq feet altogether – more space than most apartments.

Buses, trains, streetcars, bikes as well as pedestrians (and just about every other animal, plant or mineral) use space and infrastructure more efficiently than personal cars, whether moving or at a standstill. At approximately four meters across, road lanes are about the same width of railroad tracks, yet rail carries twenty times the number of passengers.

Despite the environmental fanfare, the Volt’s electric battery merely relocates tailpipe pollution to the source: power stations. Yet over half of all US electricity comes from coal, which produces more carbon emissions and pollutants than regular oil. If the goal of the electric car is to limit global warming, using carbon based fuels is puzzling.

Even with alternative fuels or better fuel efficiency the private car will continue to be an ecological catastrophe. From steel and aluminum, to paint and rubber production, to automotive assembly, manufacturing an average automobile generates enormous pollution. A Summer 2007 study titled, From Dust to Dust, concluded that half the energy a car uses in its lifecycle is in the production and destruction phases. Growing awareness of these energy costs prompted Norway to make it nearly impossible for car companies to advertise as “green”, “clean” or “environmentally friendly” without proving that this was the case in every aspect of the lifecycle from production to emissions to recycling.

The basic point is this: there is no such thing as a green car. It is not sustainable for individuals to hop into a two, four or eight thousand pound metal box for mobility.

Beyond ecological costs, car hegemony has a slew of negative side effects. Auto travel leads to significantly higher rates of injury or death than other forms of transportation. Additionally, infrastructure designed for the car undermines walking and biking, which are vital elements of a healthy lifestyle.

An incredibly expensive form of transportation, the amount of time devoted to the car is immense. It’s been calculated that the average person in the U.S. works from January 1st to March 31st to pay for their automobile(s). April 1st has been declared auto freedom day; the day people begin earning money for food, board, clothing, education and the other necessities of life.

When the automobile serves as the primary mode of mass transit, the poorest are hardest hit. Low-income U.S. families spend over a third of their take home pay on transportation, twice the proportion of affluent families. The Volt, which starts at $41, 000, will not alter that. But, it will give a boost to the image consciousness. Since the dawn of the auto age, the car has been a conspicuous symbol of status in a hyper materialist world.

North America’s transportation system, based on individual ownership of vehicles, is inefficient, environmentally destructive and dominates cultural, economic, and political systems in a wide variety of negative ways. Will the Volt revolutionize transportation or will its smoke and mirrors reinforce the dominance of the private car?

It may be time to look beyond private automobility.

Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are authors of just released Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler [at] Read other articles by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lichen said on August 18th, 2010 at 4:31pm #

    I agree; cars are weapons of mass destruction, they need to be banned from most public spaces; we need to redesign our communities for high speed rail and walkability and stop these toxic, ugly death machines from being made.

  2. VPK9 said on August 18th, 2010 at 10:15pm #

    To some extent, you’re right, in that mass transit would be better for the environment. However, I lost a lot of respect when I started looking at the statistics you were using, including the bit about each car needing 200 ft^2 for repairs. Are you seriously basing your argument on the claim that every car in the world needs its own private auto shop?

    On another level, the car is too deeply entrenched in our world to really do anything about it. We need to develop mass transit further, but arguments for doing things like banning cars are hopelessly unrealistic. Being that idealistic may make you feel better, but it does nothing to improve the world.

  3. dave876 said on August 19th, 2010 at 5:01am #

    Some writers can write negatives about what should be a positive. This writer fails to see it’s time we take action and try to get away from oil! Give GM at least some credit!
    Picture a major highway with traffic bumper to bumper, like I see every day on I95, and all the gasoline going to waste while cars are just idling. If all the cars were Volts, think of all the gasoline it would save, because Volts takes very little energy while idling. No motors running, maybe the radio or some other accessory, but nothing like the wasteful engine. We could get off from foreign oil!

  4. hayate said on August 19th, 2010 at 8:59am #

    I stopped buying american made vehicles decades ago….