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  • Provost Prose

    A provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

Charging Into the Future
April 17, 2011 - 6:44pm

For the last four days, I have been driving a Chevrolet Volt which is a real electric car (different from the typical hybrid) with a back-up gas powered engine to charge the Lithium-Ion batteries when necessary. The “when necessary” is when you drive the Volt for more than 40 miles. It’s been very interesting and the future is clearly visible here. The car will be displayed on campus (courtesy of East Hills Chevrolet) as part of the University’s Earth Day activities, and the dealer also invited me to drive the car for a few days before it goes on display.

Where I live is just less than 11 miles from the campus. The Volt is therefore good for my daily commute including a meeting or lunch off campus, which of course happens regularly. The car has keyless ignition, automatic transmission, Bluetooth, a highly interactive and well thought out instrument panel. leather seats, pleasant styling, and power window, mirrors etc. This is a very well equipped and very comfortable vehicle, it handles well and rides well, not that different from many other very nice sedans. Except there are differences—first and most noticeable, the car is silent. Not just quiet but beautifully silent (unless the climate control fan is on a higher setting, in which case the car is virtually silent). Even more importantly, there are no emissions when driven within its electric range and so the environment clearly benefits. The other major difference is that the car needs to be plugged in when I come home at the end of the day. So now when I come home, I not only make sure my phone is fully charged for the next day, I also make sure my car is fully charged as well. In fact I never travel anywhere without an extension cord. At the beginning of the day and the end of the day, I am liking this car.

What I am also liking, is what the car says about General Motors and by extension what it says about the American automobile industry. We can compete, and we can be at the cutting edge. Overall, the cars being produced this year by GM, Ford and Chrysler come closer to meeting the needs and desires of the American public than any product line-up in many years. There is no longer a need to go to a Japanese or German car to drive a top quality vehicle.

But there is still much more work to be done. The American automobile industry must show it can build quality cars responsive to consumer demand, not just this year but over the long term. And the cars must also last over the long run. Innovation must continue. Here too there is much more work to be done. The Volt is a great car but it is only a start. The battery capacity needs to be increased and the price needs to come down. The technology is brilliant but this is still not my idea of a $40,000+ car ($32,500+ after factoring the Federal tax credit). I would like to drive a green car but one with an electric range of closer to 200 miles. And if I spend $40,000 on a car, I certainly expect power seats rather than the manual adjustment the car presently has.

I will miss driving the Volt and I really like the car. Perhaps not in the next year or two but certainly in the next 5 or 10 years, I see myself driving an electric car on a daily basis. The world is certainly changing. In the car industry as well as in higher education, we need to make sure that what we do facilitates change, prepares us for change and respond to change. No short circuits welcome here.

 

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