Unless you’ve had your eyes glued to the Chevy Volt’s development, you probably aren’t aware of a new controversy which has come up over it.
The Volt’s battery is designed to last for the life of the car (10 years or 100,000 miles). As such, it stays constantly charged. In fact, when only about 20% of the battery charge is drained, it discontinues EV-only mode, and turns on the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) to recharge the battery. Still, this gives you 40 miles per trip (so you can drive to work, plug in, and drive home… for a total of 80 miles of gas-free driving per day). That’s a good thing.
But, there’s a moral hazard in this. What happens if you run out of gas? The battery stays at least 50% charged at all times. There’s nothing technical from preventing the battery from powering back on, and letting you get home or to a gas station to refuel. Of course, if you do this, you hurt the life of the battery each time… quite significantly, when you’re considering the battery has to last a decade.
So, the question now arises, will the Volt have an emergency mode? Will it have a panic button that lets you power on the vehicle, outside of operating specifications? That’s something that GM says they’re mixed about internally. They realize that there is interest in an Emergency Mode, but they also realize that they have to warranty the battery for a decade, and that this mode will be abused by some (careless drivers who run out of gas a lot).
So, here’s my proposal. I haven’t seen this proposed elsewhere.
Having an Emergency Mode is essential, I don’t even want to debate that. If you’re in a natural disaster, or in a dangerous situation… it’s just as bad as a derelict cell phone that decides to update brick itself. So, give users a little bit of leeway, but set requirements (in the Volt’s computer) for voiding the warranty.
Here’s how it would work. Lets say you run out of gas. The Volt’s computer pops up with the option to continue driving, but notifies you that you can only do this five more times. After that, the warranty on the Volt’s battery is voided. This allows users to chose… they can wait for a tow truck to give them gas, or, they can hit the panic button and keep going.
Once all five incidents are used up, the Volt would connect to OnStar (since all Volts will have OnStar), and sends a notification that the user has exceeded the allowed number of Emergency Mode events. GM then updates the warranty status on their computer, to note that the Volt’s battery is now out of warranty. The Volt will then continue to allow Emergency Mode, simply the user is now out of warranty. Of course, only the battery’s warranty would be affected. The rest of the warranty would remain intact, since this method of operation doesn’t impact other functions on the car.
Really, this could be in GM’s interest to offer from a financial standpoint. Well, first, GM wouldn’t have to worry about wrongful death lawsuits (stemming from people killed in situations where an Emergency Mode could have saved their lives). More key however, it would give GM a way to strip warranties from users who abuse their batteries.
And, this wouldn’t be hard to do at all… all the technology is there. I’m going to put my foot down and say that if there isn’t some form of Emergency Mode, I won’t be buying a first-generation Volt. Hopefully Chevy will listen.
I agree, that’s the best way to handle it. They don’t even need to contact OnStar, all modern cars have their own black box to record such things. Though notifying OnStar would be a redundancy to prevent any hacks with replacing the black box, etc. And there is precedent. The current Nissan GT-R has a launch control feature from the factory, which produces quicker starts. But if you use it you void your warranty because it puts a lot of stress on the transmission.
There is some controversy around the GT-R’s warranty because this is a ‘standard’ feature that if you use you void the warranty, which a lot of people think is ridiculous. But I don’t think it’d be an issue for an ’emergency only’ feature, especially if it gave you a couple of ‘free’ uses. There could be other limits as well – such as if you drop it below 20% charge in emergency mode you void the warranty, etc.
But it would be wrong to have the capability to drive the car out of a bad situation and to strand the driver through artificial limits.
Taking your comments a step further… OnStar should actually report each use of Emergency Mode. That way, a hacker can’t simply reset the unit when hitting close to the five-or-so strikes. That would be an exploit similar to how DVD drives can have their region lock count reset.
By phoning home immediately after each usage, GM’s servers would be able to keep count independently… that would be a lot harder to hack out (you’d have to rip out the OnStar module , and I doubt the Volt will power up in that event… for various reasons GM has yet to spec out, so I’ll stay quiet on that).
I certainly can see GM’s stress about this. If not handled properly, hackers could hotwire the battery, and make the Volt run 80, even 120 miles on a single charge. While that sounds cool, the battery would be shot after three years… a la EV-1.
GM doesn’t want the bad press of turning away legitimate warranty claims on the battery, out of suspicion of abuse. Still, it’s a public safety issue overall.
You confuse me.
Why is it essetial to have an emergency button?
Do you say the same for current Gasoline cars?
There is no difference between the two – Both can run out of gas?
The only thing you gain from the VOLT is possible solution.
It is not essential or a Moral issue?
I agree Jay! Under the theory proposed, all cars regardless of energy source, should have reserve energy stores for a so called emergency mode……
Moral hazard? Most every aspect of the invention called The Motor Vehicle lies upon moral hazard…..
When a Prius runs out of gas it doesn’t run on just the battery and the gas tank of the car has to be totally filled in order to restart the car. Yes I do realize that the Prius is a Gas-Electric Hybrid and the Volt is an electric vehicle with a range extending ICE but the same principle holds true. If the car runs out of gas it should remain nonfunctional until it is topped off again. I’ve only ever run out of gas once and that was in a vehicle with an inoperative fuel gauge and I was actually on the way to the gas station then. I’d also imagine that GM will include a fuel range gauge on this vehicle in the Driver’s Information Center I own an 06 Chevy and it has one as does most of their lineup. I’m speaking as someone who works parttime for a rental car company and my experience with various cars. If there’s something I missing please feel free to enlighten me.
Travis, the principle does not hold true between Prius and Volt.
The Prius battery is very small. It couldn’t handle any reasonable distance… a mile would be a stretch.
The Volt’s battery, if uninhibited by limitations from GM, could easily go 80 to 120 miles on a single charge. Chevy will limit the EV-only mode to 40 miles, in order to sustain the life of the battery for 10 years.
But, if you are in an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster, 20 miles could be the difference between life and death. It could get someone to an emergency shelter, when gas stations are out of fuel.
Finally, there is another key difference between the Prius and Volt. Using an Emergency Mode on the Prius, would harm the battery much more… with again, only the walking distance of a mile gained. With the Volt, the battery would not be dramatically harmed from any single drain-down event. However, several drain-downs would have a life-shortening effect.
You really cannot compare the Volt’s battery and the Prius’s hybrid system…. there are a lot of other technical factors, but safe to say, GM could easily offer an Emergency Mode, and GM’s CEO has even said that the battery will extend itself beyond typical specifications if you are “close to home”… the technology is there, and they should do it.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t ever buy a Volt if they don’t add an Emergency Mode, but I sure won’t buy the first-gen if they lack it. It would show that GM isn’t serious about thinking out every usage scenario with safety in mind.
As to the two comments that suggest that the Volt shouldn’t have access to the full battery capacity in an emergency… it’s simply a false premise.
The Volt already has an emergency reserve… even GM has admitted that. Now it is a matter of if GM will let you access it. That’s why it is a moral hazard for them to not offer an Emergency Mode.
I’m not asking GM to add an emergency reserve. The commenters above are correct, most cars don’t have one. But, the Volt happens to have one. In an emergency, you should be able to use it.
Like I proposed in the article, if people abuse that option, GM can easily void their warranty. It’s no excuse to not give the user the choice… especially when their life could depend on it.
umm dude just like in a normal car u wouldnt let the gas tank get to E before you filled up durrrrr when the tank is like 25% reamining u would probably want to fill er up just as in a normal CAR!!!!
also the battery can be go down to 30% not 50% check GMs web page not some figure u made up. also can be charged up to 80% not 100% as some people may believe. ok u have a huge battery to take care of after 10 yrs but u reduce co2 emission but what almost half. Lesser of two evils the volt wins, also send the batteries to a 3rd world country they can built huts or something out of them bam problem solved. there about 400lbs a battery fyi pretty big
Hammer Time, first, let’s not pass around slurs like “you made up.” Don’t be rude, don’t be crass.
The Volt’s battery has a recharge range, from around 30% to around 50%. GM will convey this to users as conditioning, in order to preserve the battery. Chances are, the final UI will never show this exact figure to the user. They’ll only see the amount of battery life that they’re allowed to use.
I never talked about CO2 emissions, so that’s an irrelevant point you’re spuriously bringing up.
Finally, you brought up the notion of “always refilling so the gas tank doesn’t get to empty.” Unfortunately, you missed the emergency word in there. A EREV shouldn’t be designed to think that gas will always be available.
What about a gas crisis? Please don’t tell me that’s unlikely. What about a natural disaster? Please don’t tell me that’s unlikely.
A big battery is nice. A dead person that couldn’t get to safety, while that battery still has a charge left in it, isn’t.
Clever argument here and interesting ideas.
If you think about this from GM’s perspective, they’ll have to set up some sort of infrastructure to handle these things. They’ll need to have a system to handle emergency mode activations so they can keep track of everything. Then they’ll need to commit money for customer support issues related to this. They would have to “undo” these activations if it’s “accidental” or whatever. Just building this into the cars is a cost that GM doesn’t want to add to the Volt customer cost. Perhaps OnStar would be a required subscription to use the Volt, not just an option. Would be fun if you can’t use your own car wouldn’t it. Kind of reminds me of software.
One thing they could do is to charge more for the car. They obviously don’t want to do that. They could charge more for versions of the car that have this emergency mode. Not only is that inefficient manufacturing from GM’s perspective, but there will be lots of groaning that some cars have it and some don’t. Also, if someone dies from a freak accident due to not having enough charge, it’s their fault for not getting the emergency mode option, hahaha.
If they actually do set up a system for this, rather than having it void the warranty after 5 uses, maybe they couled void it immediately. If it’s really an emergency situation then who cares about a warranty. There is still the customer support issue there too. They’d have to give back warranty status to people who actually needed to use emergency mode (probably extremely few) and then deal with everyone else who wants to game the system.
To the argument about the Prius is valid.
“The Prius battery is very small. It couldn’t handle any reasonable distance… a mile would be a stretch.”
“But, if you are in an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster, 20 miles could be the difference between life and death.”
Ok but a mile could be the difference also. Who decides where the line is? The courts? GM and Toyota would love that one too.
You’re paying $X for car Y. If you think that’s a moral hazard, then not putting small emergency backup gas tanks in gas cars is also a moral hazard. You could run out of gas and die! Heck they could just keep a little reserve gas in there for just such a situation to hold until the emergency button is pressed. The gas is already there! It would be a moral hazard to not use it for emergencies! That wouldn’t even harm the life of the car either.
Back to the software parallel, consider trial or shareware software that is free or costs less than the full version. This software has limitations and you don’t get full functionality until you pay for the full version. Is this a moral hazard? I have to admit that software tactics like DRM can get really nasty and might actually be moral hazards actually causing harm to your computer or usability of your computer. However a Chevy Volt won’t cause harm to your house as a designed feature. But now that I think of it, when you run out of gas, the car or carmaker isn’t causing harm to you and isn’t potentially causing harm to you. Plenty of people get hurt for accidental reasons such as a mistake they made themselves. You seem to have brought a life or death situation into it to add weight to your argument, and it’s not really a valid part of the argument at all.
Anyway, I just don’t see this anywhere on the safety scale compared to the regular safety issues. Do we have any stats on how many people have died from running out of gas?
At least initially, OnStar is mandatory. GM needs OnStar to monitor battery diagnostics and determine if they need to make revisions to production mid-year. This stuff has never been tested in mass production, hence all the work in tuning OnStar.
OnStar pricing hasn’t been revealed yet, but I suspect it will be free on the Volt… at least to initial buyers. I’d call it compensation for all the Technical Service Bulletins that those first Volts will have to go back to the shop for.
P.S. Your car doesn’t keep a reserve of gas to prevent the car from wearing out early. The Volt’s battery does. That’s where the moral hazard presents itself, possibly in a life or death situation. It’s not like the Volt doesn’t have a giant, cellular radio, to phone back to GM and alert you that you’re abusing the emergency mode… or customer service reps sitting by the phone to make the call.
I’d compare it to remote vehicle starting. If I’m in an accident, OnStar can enable/disable my vehicle. It doesn’t take a lot of code for me to call OnStar and say “I’m in an emergency, let me use the remaining battery so I can get to the hospital.”
My car had OnStar initially. I bought it used but there was some time left on it I believe, but I never renewed. I imagine nobody pays for the initial OnStar usage period explicitly. Maybe they build something into the car’s price, or just maybe the people subscribed to it are paying for the new people.
“P.S. Your car doesn’t keep a reserve of gas to prevent the car from wearing out early. The Volt’s battery does.”
It could though. Let’s see if I can parse this.
1. “Your car doesn’t keep a reserve of gas”
No it doesn’t. This isn’t useful to the discussion.
2. In general, keeping a reserve of gas can’t “prevent the car from wearing out early”
I’m not an expert on this but I believe some wear might actually occur when your car runs out of gas (mixed results googling for that). People generally don’t run out of gas very often though. If it happened in an emergency, it could be bad, just like if an electric car ran out of charge or went below the set threshold. They act the same there.
What about the gas generator in the Volt? I almost forgot about that for a minute there. Some electric cars don’t have those. If you are out of gas and out of electrical charge, then you’ve exhausted two of your power sources there. That’s one more than gas car drivers get. This part only applies to the Volt. Alright, I can still see you saying, “but no, there’s still charge in the batteries and I bought the car”. I’m reminded of software DRM again.
I do like the OnStar method – ask an actual person to enable it. That would completely prevent accidental activations. Having this option would actually be an advantage over gas automobiles. You can probably call OnStar to have someone bring out a gas can though. Very similar but takes a bit longer.
You might argue the electric car is different – it’s harder to find a place to charge up. Well yeah but that sounds more like an argument for having more places to charge up, or for being more responsible about charging and keeping your generator tank filled. Again with a Volt you could always go to a gas station anyway, effectively same as a gas car in the discussion.
“It’s not like the Volt doesn’t have a giant, cellular radio, to phone back to GM and alert you that you’re abusing the emergency mode… or customer service reps sitting by the phone to make the call.”
First, you’ve still got a cost there. There would have to be some device or code in the car to do this, and you’re also paying the “customer service reps sitting by the phone”.
Second, What if it didn’t? Would there be no moral hazard then? Would companies that don’t have an OnStar-like system not be exposed to the same criticism? If so, then this would be punishment for GM having an OnStar system and that doesn’t make much sense.
People die in construction work occasionally. At the end of the day, some level of danger is accepted, otherwise we wouldn’t build things, or drive for that matter.
People die in construction work occasionally, this is true.
People sue for anything under the sun, this is also true.
As such, I can tell you right now, the first time someone is robbed/hurt/injured/killed/etc in a Volt that is dead on the side of the road, and someone finds out that the battery could have started up… GM will be sued.
You only have to lose one or two of those lawsuits before your insurance agency says “look, we’re going to keep getting sued over and over again on this… just implement something or we’re going to have to hike your rates.”
I’m just trying to save GM that trauma while they’re off their feet, and still recovering from bankruptcy. Even if you don’t agree that there’s a moral hazard, it’s much harder to disagree that someone, at some point, will sue over this down the road.
Yeah, I guess I can’t disagree with that 🙂 It will be interesting when something like that happens. It is a low probability so it might take a while. Maybe someone can create a setup where they get robbed to start things off earlier. That would be fun. They’d have to make sure they were driving along with something very valuable at the time to make it worthwhile, and also get beat up a little as a bonus.
I would definitely like to see any current stats where people have something like that happen when they’ve run out of gas.