Fifty-some automobile manufacturers and over 700 vehicles will be on display this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And one of the stars of the event will be this year’s Chevrolet Volt — which this morning was named winner of the Car of the Year award. With the Volt sharing the stage at the big show with a GE WattStation charger by its side, we spoke with GM’s Robert Peterson about this year’s marked EV takeover in Detroit.
GE Reports: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the past few years here at the show?
Robert Peterson: When we first showed the Volt back in January of 2007, it was the only electric vehicle concept that was revealed and on display. You fast-forward to today, and basically any manufacturer here that can spell “EV” has an EV conceptualized or in production.
GER: Back then, what were the predictions about electric vehicles?
Peterson: At the time that we revealed the Volt concept, back in 2007, it was met with great fanfare. But one of the articles really cut to the bone of the issue [expressing serious skepticism] about the Volt. And the reason for this skepticism was that the key technology that was required to build this vehicle didn’t yet exist.
So, over the last three years, with the Volt leading the way, there has been the development of a battery industry here in the United States. Not just abroad, because that’s where everybody thought batteries would come from — you’re seeing it right here. In the state of Michigan alone, there are five new battery manufacturing plants, either online or coming online.
GER: What’s the feel at this year’s show?
Peterson: Everyone is talking about the Volt. I mean, media coverage for the Volt has been outstanding. The electric vehicles are without a doubt the hottest items at any auto show. No question about it. Sure, you have your enthusiasts that go to the Maseratis and the Ferraris — but the technology that intrigues the population the greatest is electric vehicles, period.
GER: What’s new about the show this year in particular?
Peterson: What’s really interesting is that this year, for the car of the year — which is designated by a group of approximately fifty members of the media — two of the three finalists [were] electric vehicles: the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf.
GER: What kind of reaction is the WattStation receiving?
Peterson: The WattStation plays an important role in the excitement about the electric vehicles because there are people who are genuine vehicle enthusiasts and there are people who are energy enthusiasts, and energy security people, and people who want to do better for the environment. What’s needed in all of these regards is a charging infrastructure [for EVs].
GER: How big of a change is it for electronic devices to be getting so much play in the Auto Show?
Peterson: This industry has always had a very traditional equation: “Gas plus a car equals freedom.” And now we’re changing that equation to: “Electricity plus your automobile gives you that freedom.”
What we’re seeing here is that as that equation changes, the excitement around it begins to permeate into entirely different areas. It’s not just the automotive media, it’s not just the automotive consumer, but it’s also the venture capitalists, the small businesses, the inventors, the innovators. It’s these people who are seeing a new transportation equation. And they’re looking at it and saying “What can be?” rather than “What is?”