Friday, October 26, 2012

Dinner With Five Voltec Engineers

On October 23, my wife and I had dinner with five Voltec engineers in Durango Colorado. We had received a call about a week ago saying they would be stopping in town and wanting to know if we would be interested in talking with them. We, of course, we’re delighted to meet them and share our experience with the car.

These five engineers are part of the propulsion team. They were making a loop through Colorado that started in Denver and would end in Colorado Springs. They told us that they were testing various new components, and otherwise testing the performance of the vehicle in mountainous terrain. They did not share what those the new components might be.

At the outset I should note that these men seemed to be very proud of what they had achieved. They took great pride in the Volt. I was very complimentary towards the car and they told me how much they appreciate not only what I said, but also the very positive responses the Volt has received. Several of these guys had also worked on the hybrid Silverado and they were very proud of their achievements with that truck as well. I should also note that came up in the discussion several times, primarily raised by me. There were many smiles around the table and they assured me that they were very familiar with the site and it was monitored closely every day.

Our discussion started with their question as to why I bought the Volt. Condensing a long discussion, I said that I fell in love with the car. The car and I made a connection. It just felt right. I had never bought a Chevy before, and have only owned one other American car out of the dozens of cars I’ve owned. I had not expected to feel a connection with the car when I got in and drove it, but boy was I surprised. I was impressed by the quality and the quietness, by the feel of the breaks, steering, and doors, and above all I was impressed by the quickness, responsiveness, and seamless operation of the car. Yes, the extremely low operating costs, environmental considerations and cutting our dependance on oil are all very important factors. But if most buyers are like me, the first and most important question is whether the car feels right. In the case of the Volt, the answer was a definite yes for me.

Since they were propulsion engineers they were primarily interested in how the engine/ battery/drivetrain system worked in mountainous terrain. I told them I was very happy with Mountain Mode. I had tried to navigate the mountains without it, and ultimately concluded that Mountain Mode was the best. I did ask them about a phenomenon I had experienced on several occasions. Usually when I run out of battery power driving on the flats it shows that I consumed around 10.4 kW. However, on several occasions, and it seems primarily when driving in the mountains, I would only show a consumption of approximately 9.6 to 9.8 kW before I would run out of battery power. They did not have an answer for why this would occur but they may get some information that could could sort out, since they downloaded a whole bunch of data from my car.

They asked me about my likes and dislikes and I told them Chevrolet had struck a very good balance between the competing interests of battery power, weight, cost and engine efficiency. I did make one comment about the gasoline engine to the effect that on occasion I could feel a slight vibration through the steering wheel and possibly the floor. I suggested that since a vibration is connected to your sense of what you hear, that I may have been feeling the engine more than actually hearing it when driving in the mountains. I said the noise was very low, and not the least bit obtrusive, but I did on occasion notice it and therefore thought that they might want to think about inserting a little more isolation between the engine and other components.

They asked me if I had any recommendations on the display screens in the car. I said that maybe it was a lack of imagination, but I really didn’t, with one exception. In the power mode you can see the number of kilowatts consumed, but I would like to have an initial notation of how many kilowatts were in the battery before I started the trip. When the car is unplugged, there is a notice that is fully charged, but there is no numerical indication of what that charge is. I felt it would be useful to have that information, which would enable one to monitor how the battery was performing.

They asked about charging. I told him there were no public charging stations around here and all charging was done in my garage. They asked what kind of charger I used. I told them I had decided on the SPX Power Express since, although it was more expensive, it appeared to be a much heavier duty device than some of the cheaper models. There were some knowing smiles around the table. I explained I was very happy but had experienced two charging interruptions, which I attributed to lightning or some other problem with the electrical current. In response to their question I confirmed that the check engine light came on in both instances. The first time it cleared fairly quickly but the second time stayed on for several days. It stayed on long enough that I ended up making an appointment with the dealer to have it checked out, even though I was certain, based on my conversation with OnStar, that there was no problem. As these things go of course the next day it turned off. They explained that it is specifically designed to stay on through four cycles, a requirement having to do with the emission control standards.

We discussed a few non-propulsion things, primarily little quibbles. I suggested that the back door trim on the inside could easily be of a higher quality, similar to that on the front doors, without costing too much. I mentioned the need for a bit of rubber trim on the outside of the rear doors, to keep the doorjamb from getting dirty. They smiled, and said they were fully aware of that problem based on their experience every time they wash the cars. We discussed power seats a little. They explained that they were not included for weight and cost reasons. I said that in most cars I’ve found power seats unnecessary since my wife and I drive separate cars and rarely adjust the seats. Oddly, the Volt is an exception. We both love it so much, and prefer to our Acura, that it is always the first car out the garage and the other car is only driven if both of us are driving at the same time or if we are hauling a large load. Lastly we said we really loved the black roof, that it gave the Volt a distinctive appearance. While it was discontinued in 2013 it should at least be an option.

When they brought up the subject of the coming winter, we had a lengthy discussion about heat pumps. They said a heat pump was not included because of the experience with heat pumps in the EV-1. I explained that they should look at the issue again since heat pump technology has changed dramatically since the late 80s and early 90s and based on my household experience with heat pumps it seems to me that the possibility of it meeting the Volt’s heating needs were very high. My heat pump still works well at 10°.

We discussed marketing a little bit. I expressed the view that Chevrolet was not focusing on the biggest attribute of the vote, that the combination of a gas generator with a battery was a marriage made in heaven. The single largest drawback that keeps people from enjoying the seamless quiet power and economy of an electric vehicle is the concern that it cannot on trips of any distance. The volt solves that problem. Any time it needs to be driven on a long trip, the driver can do so simply by filling it with gasoline just as in any other car. However, for 80 to 90% of the daily usage of the car, the driver can simply run it on battery power, never using gasoline.

After dinner we went out to the Volt and I gladly agreed to their request to download data from the car. I also received an in-depth explanation of the operation of the drivetrain. I did mention that one chintzy little thing I didn’t like was the hood release latch. I said I assumed it was taken out of the Chevy parts bin but was really a bush league device that was not consistent with the high-quality engineering in the car. I asked about the Cadillac ELR and specifically about the news that it might get a turbocharged engine. The response was a knowing smile but otherwise, “no comment.”

It was a wonderful evening. I am very impressed with the attitude and confidence of these men. I left thinking that with these men working on the Volt, it and the other vehicles that will be developed with the Voltec technology have a bright future ahead of them.