Rush Limbaugh: Expert on the Chevy Volt?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 31 Jul 2010

The day after General Motors announced pricing on the Chevrolet Volt, conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh took the opportunity to cite it as an example of the Obama Administration's socialist-like "Central Planning." [Full transcript here]. A man who lives alone in a 24,000 square foot home -- he's been married and divorced three times -- and drives, among his personal fleet of luxury cars, a $475,000 Maybach 57S criticized people who bought the Prius, which he incorrectly priced at $30,000, as doing it to show they are better than everyone else.

"Now look what it costs you liberals, 30 to 41 grand to show you're superior, that you care more than the rest of us," he said to his radio audience on July 28th. But he drives a Maybach because "he appreciates fine cars." Okay.

It would be so easy to descend to his level of sophistry, but let me try to stick to the thread of this commentary: is Rush Limbaugh an expert on the technology behind the Chevrolet Volt? Permit me to begin with his understanding of the history of electric car.

…would somebody tell me what's new about a battery, what is novel about a battery?  I mean cars have had batteries in them for I don't know how long.  There's nothing new about having a battery in a car.  What is new is having a battery power the whole damn thing.
Actually, the very first automobile, as we understand them today, was powered by another relatively new invention of the time, the rechargeable lead acid battery in the mid-1880s. As late as 1914, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were collaborating to mass produce an affordable electric car with 200 miles of driving range. Read Edwin Black's "Internal Combustion" if you want to find out why it never happened. One third of the cars sold in America in the first decade of the 20th century were electric cars. So, there is nothing new about having batteries power an automobile. Had Limbaugh lived in 1905 and enjoyed his current economic status, he would have owned one, as well. Next, Volt-expert Limbaugh seems to believe that the car can only drive 40 miles and then its dead in the water, so to speak. Dave Letterman made the same wrong assumption and got paid a visit by Bob Lutz.
It takes three to four hours to charge the thing, 40 miles to the charge.  And then there's a backup gas tank that gives you 375 miles…

I don't know where the charging stations are.  The charging station is your house, so that 40-mile range has gotta include you getting home and then staying home for three to four hours to charge the thing.  It's 20-mile range. 
Although Mr. Limbaugh understands that the Volt does have a gasoline tank, apparently he thinks it's there for ballast. Two important points here. The Volt has an onboard gasoline generator that produces electricity to charge the batteries and drive the car's electric motors. As long as there's gasoline in that tank, the car will drive well beyond the 40 miles. Point two, a minor one really, but to our knowledge GM has never stated what the hybrid-mode range of the car is exactly, only that its more than 300 miles, which is the driving range of most cars today.

The reason General Motors chose the 40 mile electric car range is because solid government statistics, which maybe is the problem for Limbaugh, demonstrate that upwards of 85% of Americans drive less than that a day. The average, according to the Department of Transportation, is right about 30 miles a day. Since Mr. Limbaugh lives in a $24 million estate in Palm Beach, Florida and usually broadcasts out of a studio in the same community, he probably drives less than 30 a day, himself, making him an ideal candidate for the Volt, if only it were a "real car." Referring to the $41,000 MSRP, he told his audience…

"You could go out and spend a little bit more and get a real car."  Lexis, Mercedes, Infiniti, Beamer, just a little bit more and get a real car. 
So, let me get this straight, only foreign made cars are "real cars"? That must come as a huge disappointment to all the Ford F150, Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram buyers in his listening audience, not to mention Cadillac and Lincoln luxury car buyers. Also, it appears the folks who do his transcripts don't know how to spell either: it's Lexus, not Lexis.

Having ridiculed all the folks who loyally buy American-made cars -- and I proudly drive a 1998 Chevy S10 with 156,000 miles on it that runs on American-made ethanol -- as well as all the self-righteous liberal soccer moms out there in their Priuses, Limbaugh then gets the history of the Volt utterly wrong. He apparently seems to believe that when GM declared bankruptcy in early 2009, after years of mismanagement and increasingly tough global competition, the Obama automotive task force walked into the Renaissance Center in Detroit and handing then-Chairman Fritz Henderson the blueprints for the Volt and ordered them to build it, or else. In actual fact, the decision to get back into the electric car game at GM began as early as 2006, maybe earlier. I was told in Iceland in May 2006 by a GM executive that "We've not given up on the electric car." If memory serves me, that was during the second term of the George W. Bush Administration. And the reasons given by then-Chairman Richard Wagoner had to do with concerns about national energy security and global competitiveness, presumably very bipartisan issues, one would think. Opening the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Wagoner made the following observations as to why the company decided to invest in the Volt.

“..the auto industry has a lot of balls in the air right now when it comes to the future of automotive propulsion, and for very good reason. Earlier this month, the price of oil hit a hundred-dollars-a-barrel, as demand for energy around the world is growing faster than supply. “And that's not just a cyclical phenomenon. . . it's structural, given the growth in emerging economies, which we fully expect to continue.

“Here's an amazing statistic: on a global basis, to satisfy all energy needs, we're consuming roughly 1,000 barrels of oil every single second. . . and the rate of consumption continues to grow. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the world will need about 70 percent more energy in 2030 than it did in 2004.

“Now, when you consider these facts in light of the world's heavy reliance on oil for automotive transportation. . . in the U.S. , for example, 96 percent reliance on oil. . . we have to ask ourselves. . . what does all this mean for the global auto industry? For us at GM, the answer is perfectly clear. As a business necessity, and an obligation to society. . . we need to develop alternative sources of propulsion. . . based on diverse sources of energy. . . to meet the world's growing demand for our products.”
As others who have commented on Limbaugh's uninformed rant have noted, America either makes a serious commitment to the transportation technology of the 21st century, or all the cars we buy in the future will be "real" ones built somewhere else. Is the Volt perfect. Of course, not. I think GM should have set the MSRP much lower so that after the rebate -- which Limbaugh also criticizes -- the car comes in under $30,000. A Volt priced at $28,950 after the $7,500 tax credit would be just slightly higher than a top-of the line Prius. It would cost GM about $4,450 in lost profit per car, I estimate, but it would send a powerful statement and give the company room to maneuver on future pricing. As it now stands, the price of the Volt can never go down.

But for Limbaugh to endorse foreign car makers in preference to U.S. ones seems pretty un-American to me, but then I am from Nebraska. Time will prove whether GM's decisions about the Volt were the right ones. There's a lot riding on that car and Limbaugh's comments do little for its prospects and even less for his credibility.

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