Gullibility Part 3: how Chevy Volt bad reporting was misrepresented as bad product, supported by bad math

Introduction

In previous hubs in the series, we have identified the causes of gullibility, how gullibility can be identified and corrected. In this hub, we will identify one such "hoax" by doing some fact checking and note how it takes advantage of prevailing fears and prejudices to perpetuate itself.

The hoax we are going to bust today is the part about "Chevy Volt Costs MORE to operate than gasoline-powered cars".

The Hoax

In February of 2012, a chain letter started to circulate on the Internet that claims Chevy Volt actually cost more to operate than gasoline-powered cars, and costs more, and thus is a colossal boondogle by GM wasting billions in Federal bailout money. The e-mail varies slightly, but this is the most popular version:

I know, but I want to save our planet ---
Cost to operate a Chevy Volt

Eric Bolling (Fox Business Channel's "Follow the Money") test drove the Chevy Volt at the invitation of General Motors.

For four days in a row, the fully charged battery lasted only 25 milesbefore the Volt switched to the reserve gasoline engine. Eric calculated the car got 30 mpg including the 25 miles it ran on the battery. So, the range including the 9 gallon gas tank and the 16 kwh battery is approximately 270 miles. It will take you 4 1/2 hours to drive 270 miles at60 mph. Then add 10 hours to charge the battery and you have a total trip time of 14.5 hours. In a typical road trip your average speed (including charging time) would be 20 mph.

According to General Motors, the Volt battery holds 16 kwh of electricity. It takes a full 10 hours to charge a drained battery.

The cost for the electricity to charge the Volt is never mentioned so I looked up what I pay for electricity.

I pay approximately (it varies with amount used and the seasons) $1.16 per kwh.

- 16 kwh x $1.16 per kwh = $18.56 to charge the battery.

$18.56 per charge divided by 25 miles = $0.74 per mile to operate the Volt using the battery.

Compare this to a similar size car equipped with only a 4 cylinder gasoline engine that gets 32 mpg.

- $3.19 per gallon divided by 32 mpg = $0.10 per mile.

The gasoline powered car cost about $15,000 while the Volt costs $46,000.

So Obama wants us to pay 3 times as much for a car that costs more that7 times as much to run and takes 3 times as long to drive across country.

REALLY? No wonder GM is having trouble selling the Volt !

While the article sounds reasonable, and seem to be internally consistent, are the figures and such it stated actually true? Let us number them and start checking them one at a time.

  1. Is Mr. Bolling's math about getting 30 mpg actually correct?
  2. Is the method of calculating "typical road trip" actually correct?
  3. is the price of electricity actually correct?
  4. Is the overall figure per mile actually correct?

Fact Check 1: Is the MPG calculation actually correct?

It is true that Mr. Bolling actually did test drive Chevy Volt for a week (video), but the way he was reviewing it was rather perculiar. He was expecting the vehicle to be a pure electric vehicle, as he keeps comparing it to a Nissan Leaf, which is a pure electric vehicle. Chevy Volt is actually a gasoline-electric hybrid that can be plugged in, but does not have to be. When it runs low on the battery, the gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery, while you're on the move.

Thus, the Mr. Bolling's remark about the Volt "runs out of electricity in 25 miles", while true, reflects a fundamental lack of understanding on how a hybrid works. The vehicle simply keeps driving as the gasoline engine kicks in. It will be less efficient than pure electric (EV) mode, sure, but it will keep moving.

The EPA figures for Volt has two sections: first EV only mode, then the gasoline-powered extended range mode. The extended range mode has EPA rating of 37 mpg. The question is... how are you supposed to calculate the actual MPG if Mr. Bolling didn't say how long his trips were? Even if you discount the EPA ranges by 20% you still have a nice range between the electric only vs. gasoline modes. And without knowing what is actual length of the trip we cannot verify the 30 mpg figure. The longer the drive, the lower the mpg figure will be.

Furthermore, listening to the video shows that at no time did Mr. Bolling actually mention this '30 mph' number. This may have been a false attribution.

Overall, this "30 mpg" claim seem to be on the fake side, as it's quoting the low end of the spectrum (37 * 0.8 is about 30) as if the electric mode is completely ignored.

VERDICT: Undetermined, but leaning toward false

Volt's EPA sticker, note 37 MPG in gasoline only mode
Volt's EPA sticker, note 37 MPG in gasoline only mode

Fact Check 2: Are the road trip figures correct or reasonable?

It appears that the definition of a "road trip" here is simply run the vehicle to empty, at least according to this hoax e-mail. Who would do that?

Furthermore, note the way the calculations are handled... They are including the time to recharge the battery to full power, which is about 10 hours, not merely driving time (about 4.5-5 hours). Who calculates rest time as part of road trip's average speed? Furthermore, with the Volt, you can simply refill the gas tank and keep going, instead of waiting for a full recharge. Efficiency will be somewhat less, but on a 270 mile (so they claim) trip, 25 miles on full electric is not significant.

What happened here is the writer intentionally presented the "worst case" (full charge!) and presented it as "normal", when it is not normal at all. This is confirmation bias, where the writer ignored evidence that would undermine his "cause" and presented only facts that would "prove" his cause.

VERDICT: technically true, but only as a worst-case scenario without using car's full capabilities

Fact Check 3: Is $1.16 per KW/h reasonable?

The author claimed that he pays average of $1.16 per kilowatt-hour. is that a reasonable figure?

The answer is... absolutely not. Average cost of electricity in the US is about 1/10th of that, about 11 cents, or $0.11 per kilowatt hour. While there are some variations from place to place, 1000% overstatement is just ridiculous.

VERDICT: Absolutely bogus, overstated by 1000%.

Fact Check 4: Is the overall cost per mile reasonable?

As we have already shown, the figures used are completely bogus. Not only is the "average trip time" used completely bogus, but the cost of electricity is overstated by 1000%.

There's a saying in computer programming; "garbage in, garbage out." Same thing happened here. The author used garbage figures to make his point, and the calculations yielded garbage.

In electric mode, assuming 16 kilowatt-hours battery, and only 80% charge efficiency, That comes out to about 2.3 dollars for 25 miles (that's worst case, gentle driving yields more mileage). Comes out to be about 9 cents per mile.

In gasoline mode, assuming EPA figures are overstated by 20%, 37*0.8=30 MPG. Current figures (as of March 2012) according to EIA is 3.72 per gallon US average. So that's 0.124 per mile, or 12.4 cents per mile.

Actual cost is somewhere between these two numbers, depending on how long your trip is.

A pure gasoline power car at 32 mpg has 11.6 cents per mile. But we're talking actual MPG, not EPA (else you have discount it by 20% like I did to the Volt in gasoline mode).

And there's no reason to wait 10 hours for the battery to recharge at all.

VERDICT: Overall cost was vastly overestimated due to bogus cost for electricity entered into the equation. In gasoline mode, Volt is no different than any other gasoline-powered vehicle.

So where did this message went off-kilter?

This e-mail basically presented a very one-sided story, by taking the review in the worst possible light (by a reporter who keep expecting something that wasn't there), doing some pretty bogus calculations, using bogus figures (electricity costing 1000% of what it should be), using a non-sensical criteria of counting the charging times as part of the trip without considering the alternative of just keep driving in gasoline mode, and basically used it to bash GM and the Volt.

if you read it a little deeper, you also sense a bit of stereotyping and fear-mongering. It plays into the fear that government bailout of the GM is a total waste, AND Obama (administration) somehow is telling us to waste our money to prop up GM.

A genuine advice would not do this sort of fear mongering by bringing politics into a car "review" or "expose".

This message was written by someone who is against GM, always seen Volt as a boondoggle, and went out to look for figures to discredit it, even if he had to invent some figures to do so, and couldn't resist making a dig at the Obama administration as well.

Final Thoughts

Just because you read something on the Internet doesn't automatically make it true, even if it was internally consistent. The figures and alleged facts can be outright false, or only partially true, and alternative scenarios may have been ignored in order to present to you a one-sided view in order to convince you of something.

To spot the problems, do the following steps

  • separate the alleged facts and figures from the rhetoric / hypothesis that is being "proven" (by all the facts and figures)
  • fact-check the alleged facts and figures, one at a time
  • search for alternative scenarios and explanations that makes more sense (and verify those as well)
  • finally, given what you have learned thus far, does the rhetoric (the hypothesis) still make sense

Be careful out there and don't get sucked in by a hoax.

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1 comment

Merve 21 months ago

Well, actually it's a prtety good idea. If you take in the cost of electricity to drive it'd be similar to like a gas cost of like 5 cents per gallon or so from what I've read.Yes, that is probably mostly coming from coal plants, especially if you live in the Midwest. However, a coal plant converting coal to electricity then having the car use that electricity to drive with is still much more efficient and produces less air toxins than what it takes to produce gasoline then burn it in your car.Actually the 40 mile range is really a smart idea. If the Volt could go the distance that most cars can on a tank of gas (about 300 miles or more), it would require a MUCH larger battery. And that would add about a ton of weight to the car. That extra weight would make the car much less efficient. So by limiting the range on total electricity it keeps the car lighter and much more efficient.So why did they choose 40 miles? Around 90% or more of Americans have a commute to and from work that is 40 miles or less. That means that around 90% of Americans could drive their entire work commute on entirely electricity.So why have a gas generator to charge the battery? Who wants to be limited to a 40 mile driving range? Or worry about when their car runs out of electric juice that they are stuck on the road. The generator allows the car to be taken on long vacation trips and for the driver to not have to worry about finding a place to plug their car in on a trip.GM has already talked and worked with electric companies to determine the impact to electric grids and electric costs. And it won't negatively affect them.The biggest negative I see is the initial cost. But anytime you bring out a new technology it is going to cost a lot. New technology is going to cost a lot until you hit the economies of scale. The Toyota Prius encountered the same thing. The first Toyota Prius's sold for less than what it cost to build them. But once the economies of scale kicked in and people started buying them en masse the technology came down in price and Toyota made a profit. Now the Prius is one of the 3 top selling cars in the US where at first it only made up a fraction of Toyota's car sales.As more Chevy Volts are made, the price of the technology and of the car should come down due to the economies of scale. The economy of scale plays a factor because you have to build all of this equipment to so that you can make these new parts and new technology. And that equipment and investment has to get paid for. Let's say for instance to make it easy. I've got a part that costs me nothing for materials. The machinary to make this part costs me $1,000,000. If I sell just 10 parts I have to sell each part for at at least $100,000 or I won't break even. If I sell 100, now the cost goes down to $10,000. If I sell 1,000,000, then I only need to charge $1 per part to break even.The Volt is a very smart idea and it was very well thought out.As far as the batteries, yes it would run on lithium ion batteries. But lithium ion batteries unlike nickel cadmium batteries can be recycled and re-used if I remember correctly.

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