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(General Motors)
(General Motors)

The Green Highway

Plugging in to the Volt way of thinking Add to ...

The GM Canada executive who worked on General Motor's first electric car, the EV1, will be happy to sell you a Chevy Volt in Canada this fall. "I'll sign you up today," says Kevin Williams, now the president and managing director of GM Canada Ltd.

In 1991, Williams was program readiness manager for the EV1 electric vehicle program. It was the first modern electric vehicle from a major auto maker and was produced and leased by GM from 1996 to 1999 in California and Arizona.

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The EV1 attracted a small but devoted following of electric car enthusiasts, but it was wildly unprofitable and was not treated well by the State of California, which backed down from its zero emission mandates. There were about 800 on the road when GM "pulled the plug" in 2002 and the leased cars were repossessed.

The demise of the EV1 remains controversial. The 2006 documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car did nothing to enhance GM's reputation by suggesting that the company sabotaged the EV1 simply to cut its losses.

The Chevy Volt is a very different electric car than the EV1. For one thing, the Volt is not purely electric. To control the size and cost of the new lithium ion battery and to ease peoples' fears about running out of juice in the middle of nowhere, GM decided to include a small gasoline engine driving a generator. There's no mechanical connection between the gas engine and the Volt's drive wheels and in that sense it is a pure electrically driven vehicle with lessons learned from the EV1 experience.

I asked Williams if the Volt undoes any reputation damage that the cancellation of the EV1 might have done to GM. "I think the Volt has already repaired it," he replied. "The Volt is a demonstration that GM is leading electric car technology. All that learning we got from the original EV program has rolled its way through - regenerative braking, various types of battery configurations. The battery technology in the first EV was not right for the market in the long term. The Volt has the right lithium ion battery technology. The EV1 was a great start, which leads us to where we are today."

Williams' career path has been a varied one since his EV1 days. Before arriving in Canada, he was managing director, GM of Mexico. He is the youngest of 12 siblings and the first in his family, but certainly not the last, to earn a college degree. His daughter just graduated from Yale. Along the way, Williams has served as chairman of the GM African Ancestry Network, as well as chairman of the funding board for the Black United Fund of Michigan.

The Volt will be available in Canada in the fall with the price starting at $41,545 before any subsidies for qualifying buyers. There are about $8,000 in provincial incentives available for buyers in Ontario and Quebec.

I drove the Volt last winter in the Detroit area. It feels and drives like any high-end, gasoline-powered sedan except that there's no engine noise in all-electric mode. I drove it hard in the city and on expressways with the heater turned on. I travelled a little more than 26 miles before the gasoline motor kicked in to charge the battery. A lighter touch on the accelerator and less use of heater and accessories would increase the range from the juice you can get from plugging it in to a standard wall plug overnight.

"This is a vehicle where you don't have to buy two," said Williams, "You just need one. You can do an extended-range driving or you can drive around town gas-free."

We'll see if the Volt enjoys a kinder fate than the EV1. The Volt is certainly a big part of GM's claim to be technologically advanced. Kevin Williams has been part of the electric car's development process since the beginning and he'd be happy to get out his order book to put you into the latest edition.

Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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