Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Amped Up


Another thing to be excited about was at the booth for Chevrolet, and no, I don't mean that Bumblebee made an appearance to introduce the Camaro.
Although that was very exciting.

It was really their introduction of an ostensibly viable electric car, which they claim is officially going into production for 2011, the Volt. Here it is as a concept vehicle:

This is a seriously hot car. Why they felt the need to bash it with an ugly stick before putting it into production, I have no idea. Here's what they had at the auto show:

Don't get me wrong, it's not that bad. But it just doesn't have the boldness or confidence of the concept version.

Here's the thing: car design generally wallows in this luke-warm stylistic middle ground. In the one direction, you have the design of, say, Japanese motorcycles, which have consistently had some of the most mind-boggling design of any kind of object. The distinction I'm making with the Japanese offerings is from the Harley-Davidson sort of American cruising bikes, which, though gorgeous, are a completely different animal. But the motifs of motorcycle design not only have to connote high technology, power, and speed, but their design has something even on the sports cars, in that it also speaks much more of adrenaline-soaked rebelliousness. So all the elements of their design are pushed to the most radical extreme. Cars, however, are typically more expensive, more of an investment, more of a risk, and are purchased for quite a few reasons other than weekend jaunts out on the highway. Their design, therefore, has to be safer and appeal to a much lower common denominator.

In the other direction, there's an art form like architecture. Architecture has to be ridiculously safe because, unlike cars which would seem to have a stylistic shelf-life of around five years, buildings need to stand and remain more or less relevant for as long as thirty years, in most cases much longer. But buildings, first of all, are just iconic inherently, due to their sheer size. Secondly, because they do typically have such a long lifespan, there's a responsibility for them to be beautiful, even if boringly so. This is why the ugliest architecture arises from situations where there's neither the need for personal or institutional identity (like suburban tract housing that has to appeal universally to the broadest section of potential buyers, or the offices of companies for which corporate branding is largely unimportant), nor the likelihood of required longevity (mid-size companies enjoying steady growth that expect to move to a more profitable or respectable location or physically outgrow their current building before it becomes obsolete).

Mass-produced, moderately-priced automobiles seem to be able to fully enjoy none of the phenomena that facilitate design innovation in other products. It's unfortunately much more restricted.

In any case, I'm still very happy the Volt is becoming a reality, whatever it looks like. I mean, for how many years have vehicles in Science Fiction movies been making that electric humming noise? Thirty? It's true GM had come out with the first electric car, the EV1, years ago and it got dumped, but luckily I think the timing is a great deal better now for this to finally take off.

It was Chevy's booth rep on the Volt turntable, in fact, who I asked what difference it makes that your car is electric if your home's power supplier burns fossil fuels, and she didn't seem to have a very good answer for me. If you drive only forty miles at a time, though, you'll never need a single drop of gasoline. The Volt does have a combustion motor, but it's not a hybrid engine. Instead, the gas powered motor is a back up, running a generator to recharge the battery if you exceed the forty-mile limit. It seems to me that it would be strangely inefficient to burn gas to run a generator to recharge the battery to power the electric motor to move the car, rather than just having a hybrid engine, but I suppose the difference is that for the first leg of a journey, you're not burning any gas, at all. And the fact remains that before recharging stations become commonplace, fears of being stranded with a dead battery will be a major hindrance to the success of electric cars.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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