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Arrival Of First Chevy Volt May Not Portend Citywide Changes

Chevy Volt

Photo: Bill Shaw

Though not sold in Indiana, at least one Bloomington resident has purchased a Chevy Volt.

The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles says there are just seven Chevy Volts registered in Indiana.  When Chris Robb’s registration is processed, he’ll be the first in Monroe County and the eighth overall.

“I’m certainly what you would call an ‘early adopter,’” he said. “First in line to get an iPad, first in line to get the iPhone, no matter which version of it.  Every year they come up with a new one, I’m first in line to get that.”

The battery technology which runs the Volt is first-generation and subject to a limited rollout nationwide.  That’s why Robb had to drive seven hours to Michigan to pick up the car.  Craig Richards, the general manager at Bloomington’s Curry Auto Center, said he’s got about six people waiting to buy a Volt when he gets them in stock.  But even that small demand may outstrip his supply.

“In this model year, we’ll probably see three or four.  So it’s not a real high-production car.  You know and I think as time goes on if there’s still people looking for that, they’ll up production, which they’ve already upped it once,” Richards said.

So while Chris Robb and others may exhibit high demand for the Volt, it may not be enough to influence General Motors to bring the car to Bloomington – or even to Indiana – any faster.

“The true challenge for electric vehicle market in general is really how well they can attract the next tier of individuals,” said Sanya Carley, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs who’s researched electric cars.  “Not just those first movers, but everyday individuals that might actually buy this as their first car or maybe their second car and use it for their regular commutes and integrate it, folded into their regular daily life patterns.”

For his part, Robb said he’s trying to be an opinion leader — almost to the point of annoyance.

“My friends are telling me that I’ve been a little bit too overzealous in selling it.  So I’ve definitely been talking it up and showing it off to friends, giving them rides, letting them take a drive,” he said.

Among unpaid advocates of a product, that level of effort is somewhat rare, said DePauw University psychology professor Sharmin Tunguz.

“They don’t stand to economically gain from speaking well of the product, and so people trust that information.  It’s word of mouth, it’s much more powerful as a source of information than any information that comes directly from a marketer or an advertiser,” Tunguz said.

She said that may be because people like Robb are assuming risk which might be too much for some consumers to bear.

“There’s a lot of intrinsic risk involved in being an early adopter and maybe that adds to the level of excitement that early adopters have, that they know that they’re the first to embark upon what may be a risky adventure,” she said.

But the risk to expand electric vehicle technology lies not only with users, but with the areas in which they live.  SPEA professor Sanya Carley said that means cities have to have an electric vehicle plan.

“It’s not just the consumer willingness to pay, although that’s a big factor.  It’s also the regulatory environment and it’s the city’s willingness to offer incentives in a variety of forms, such as financial incentives or other kinds of perks such as parking spaces or [High Occupancy Vehicle] lanes.  And without those kinds of incentives — giving money let’s say to public charging infrastructure or to residential charging infrastructure — we’re not going to attract the market.”

But electric vehicles are not a significant part of the city of Bloomington’s current plans.

“It’s certainly on the radar,” said SUstainability Director Jacqui Bauer. “We want to make electric vehicles a possibility.  But given our limited resources, and given the limited number of inquiries that we’ve gotten, it just hasn’t been a big priority yet.”

And despite the city’s green reputation, Bauer said the state’s preferred source of electricity may negate even the best intentions when it comes to reducing vehicle emissions by buying an electric car.

“95% of our electricity comes from coal and there have been studies that show that the emissions from electric cars are actually not better if the electricity source is solely coal,” she said.

So the city needs a plan, Chris Robb’s friends need test drives and General Motors needs to make the Volt more available before Bloomington is likely to see many more of the plug-in vehicles on the road.  The one constant among the many parties in the discussion is that the necessary convergence will happen in time.  How much time is anyone’s guess.

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