By John Perney
A good look at personal transportation’s future and, more important, its present greeted attendees Wednesday night at Albion College’s 2011 Isaac Alumni Lecture, which opened the 22nd annual Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium.
While John Ferris, ’89, product planning manager for the Chevrolet Volt, gave a soup-to-nuts overview of General Motors’ multiple-award-winning electric vehicle in Towsley Lecture Hall, he also threaded throughout his talk the concern for practicality that has been the driving force behind the car, from concept to production.
While acknowledging the electric vehicle competition that exists, Ferris said only the Volt currently offers the ability to run solely on electricity with no emissions for a majority of round-trip work commutes (EPA estimate of 35 miles), the ability to also go on extended road trips by way of ordinary gasoline, the convenience of being able to plug into a normal 120-volt outlet, and the obvious cost savings of electricity over gasoline (gas is up to three times more expensive per mile).
“[The Volt] represents the start of a fundamental shift, a paradigm shift in the auto industry,” said Ferris, who drove a Volt to campus and plugged it into a newly installed 240-volt charging station outside the Science Complex. “We’re in the early stages of the smart car, the smart home, the smart grid.”
Ferris began his presentation by reminding the audience that electric was actually in the automobile propulsion race a century ago. Even Thomas Edison lent his support and efforts, but electric and steam soon gave way to gasoline, and likely to no one’s surprise in the room, Ferris said the world’s near total dependence on petroleum “is so significant that it’s simply not sustainable.”
A valid sustainability question, however, is whether electric vehicles truly offer much benefit at all, since in most cases dependence is simply shifted to another fossil fuel—like coal or natural gas. While multiple source fuels could be seen as a benefit in and of itself, Ferris adds that the nation’s electrical grid continues to get cleaner—even in a state like West Virginia, where today nearly all of its electricity is coal-based but in 15 years 25 percent will be mandated to come from clean sources.
Plugging in the Volt after taking it out for a drive is of primary importance to GM, said Ferris, who also met with students in a Gerstacker Institute business strategy course before his lecture. “Our focus is residential—getting the home-charging experience where it needs to be,” he said.
Beyond the Volt’s capability of charging from either an ordinary outlet (10 hours from empty to full battery) or a 240-volt (four hours) setup, GM is actively working with both Volt owners and utilities to take advantage of off-peak electricity rates and allay fears of any potential power spikes or strains down the road. “The grid certainly still needs to be updated, but the good news is that early on, charging will be done off-peak,” Ferris told the Gerstacker students. “The grid does have extra capacity, particularly off-peak; it just needs to be managed appropriately.”
Power capabilities aside, the focus usually comes back to the Volt itself, Ferris said. “The first reaction from a lot of people is, ‘This is a real car,’” he told the Gerstacker students. A few hours later, at the close of his lecture, Ferris asked if there were any Toyota Prius hybrid owners in the audience. A couple of people raised their hands, and he sent them off with a little gift—a car decal proclaiming, “My next car will be a Chevrolet Volt.”
The Isaac Symposium continues with student presentations Thursday morning and afternoon, and concludes with environmental activist Annie Leonard delivering the Joseph S. Calvaruso Keynote Address. Her presentation, “The Story of Stuff,” gets under way at 7 p.m. in Goodrich Chapel.