With the launch of the Chevrolet Volt today, the automotive world changed direction in ways that are often appreciated more in retrospect than at the present.  The Chevrolet Volt officially rolled off the assembly line this morning in Hamtramck Michigan, to the delight of hundreds of employees, media types and dignitaries. The event was short and to the point. In the course of about an hour, contributors from GM’s CEO Dan Akerson, to Michigan Governor Granholm, and a surprise visit by former CEO Bob Lutz wowed the audience with poignant reviews of the partnership, challenges and technologies that have helped GM to move beyond bankruptcy and reclaim propriety with this historic launch. According to GM President Mark Reuss, the Volt is “True technical excellence.”

The Chevrolet Volt is an electric vehicle with a difference. While any car can operate under every day driving conditions, the Volt excels by eliminating the one major electric car shortcoming, i.e. a battery that has used up its energy before the days driving is done. EPA estimates peg the range around 375 miles for the Volt, including gas-powered battery charging by the onboard generator. For about the first 35 miles, the Volt can drive gas and emissions free with its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery. At roughly the 8-kWh point, the gas-powered engine/generator modulates as necessary to extend the driving range another 340 miles on a full tank of fuel. Estimates suggest about 35% of drivers will fall into the electric only category, which is no small number. Even if you regularly drive double the electric only range, this significant reduction in fuel use will be substantial over the life of the vehicle.

Mark Reuss talks Volt Auction to help Detroit Schools

Mark Reuss and the Volt Auction

The commitment by GM CEO Dan Akerson coincides with preparations for delivery of the first Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles with extended-range capability to customers in key states. Sales will initially focus on US sales and will eventually export to key markets, all of which will originate from the Hamtramck plant.

“GM is going to lead the industry in the adoption of various vehicle electrification technologies, whether its electric vehicles with extended-range capability, like the Chevrolet Volt, or the recently introduced eAssist technology that will debut on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse,” Akerson said. “We want to give our customers energy choices other than petroleum and to make the automobile part of the solution when it comes to the environment.”

Jeff Sparks, one of the production team leaders for the Volt assembly line told me “In 30 years of working for GM, this is really the first time we (Line workers) have the authority to stop the line for any reason if the car is not 100%.” He went on to explain, “As I see it, there is really no reason to ever go to a dealer for repairs because of production or assembly problems. These cars are really 100% right out the door.”  He gave examples, even with his own older Chevy cars, where all sorts of problems were common due to factory issues.

Besides the official vehicle launch, Chevrolet announced the first Chevrolet Volt available for retail sale will be offered at public auction with the proceeds benefiting math and sciences education in the Detroit Public Schools. Any Bidders? Bids will be accepted thru December 16 at www.bidonthevolt.com

And with all these new electric cars,  more than 1,000 new electric vehicle engineering and research jobs will be coming to Michigan over the next two years. The focus will be on the next-generation electric vehicles beyond Chevrolet Volt. The commitment will significantly expand GM’s vehicle expertise to lead in the development of electric vehicles, hybrids and electric vehicles with extended-range capability.

OK, I admit I am biased, but consider myself lucky to be a part of history in the making. Both my father and Father-in-law retired from GM where they worked for decades. My family threatened to drop my father-in-laws ashes over the GM Mound Road plant since this was often viewed as his first home. And then there’s my own history. I was a Master auto mechanic for Pontiac at age 18, Chevy service foreman at age 20, and a technology enthusiasts ever since. Last year about this time the Volt received our USREA 2009 “Innovation in Power Train Design Award.” This, even though the car had yet to roll off the line. After all, a drive train this advanced was just too cool to ignore.

The Volt represents a rare partnership between government, industry and labor to make a big dream a reality. While some have criticized the Volt as too much on cost and too little on value, the car must, and I believe will, stand on its own as a game-changer. Congratulations to Chevrolet for the 2010 USREA “Game-Changer Award.”

The only thing missing… my test drive!