Chevy Volt Is Like Apple's Macintosh

By Ross Pomeroy

A mere 16 months after the Chevy Volt's U.S. release, the manic fanfare surrounding the vehicle has fizzled. Critics are now arraigning the car from all angles, and many regard it as a flop. But amidst this onslaught of criticism and bad press, a different, less apparent comparison comes to mind. The Chevy Volt is very much like Apple's original Macintosh. Here's how:

Hype, Hype, and More Hype

Who can forget Apple's sensational "1984" commercial broadcast during Super Bowl XVIII? That historic ad invaded televisions across the nation, captivating millions in sixty seconds flat and peaking an unbelievable mountain of publicity that encapsulated the launch of the original Macintosh, a computer meant to usher in a new age of technology.

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It's quite difficult for any product to meet the nigh unreachable standards of hype set by the Mac, but in its own right, the Chevrolet Volt came very close. Thought by some to signify the re-birth of General Motors and a renewal of American car manufacturing, the vehicle was meant to usher in a new age of transportation.

In addition to the symbolic expectations, the Volt won the 2011 North American Car of the Year award, and was named one of Car and Driver's "Ten Best Cars" of 2011, the first electric car to make that venerable list. The car also garnered Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" award before it was even available for public purchase. The respected magazine hailed the Volt as a "game-changer," with one of its judges remarking, "I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot."

A Price Too High

The Macintosh 128k was released at a price of $2,495, well over $5,000 in today's dollars. The cost compared unfavorably to the Apple IIc and IBM's PCjr, both of which sold for around $1,300.

Like the would-be buyers of the Macintosh, many of the Volt's potential consumers fall victim to the same sticker shock. Priced around $40,000 (about $32,500 with the federal tax credit), it's well out of the average consumer's price range, especially for a midsize car.

Sales Short of Expectations

In his artfully penned biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson explained why Macintosh sales fell short of expectations. "It was a dazzling but woefully slow and underpowered computer," he said, "and no amount of hoopla could mask that." This fundamental problem was exacerbated by the high sticker price, and thus Mac sales were easily outpaced by competing machines from IBM. By the end of 1984, Apple was shipping less than 10,000 Macs per month and didn't even come close to the half a million sales Jobs ebulliently predicted.

The Volt's sales have been similarly dismal. Hamstrung by price, arguably poor advertising, and a tepid market for electric vehicles, its sales totaled a mere 7,671 in 2011, short of General Motor's goal of 10,000. The situation has improved slightly in 2012, but sales still languish in relative obscurity. From January to March 2012, sales amounted to 3,915, an increase over the prior year's period, but still under-paced to meet General Motor's 2012 goal of 45,000 sales.

A Dedicated Customer Base

The original Macintosh was a revolutionary, yet imperfect machine. Though it didn't reach as wide an audience as Apple intended, the computer earned unrelenting and adoring fans. In almost the same fashion, the Volt is loved and fawned over by the vast majority of its owners. Last December, Consumer Reports announced that the car scored the highest of any vehicle in their 2011 customer satisfaction survey, with 93% of owners saying that they would purchase it again. They weren't even scared away by exaggerated reports of battery fires, very much like the Mac faithful of old who weren't put-off by the fact that their little all-in-one could sometimes be a scorching "beige toaster."

Forerunners of Innovation

The original Macintosh was a business failure, but there's no denying that it changed things. With the launch of the Mac, the Graphical User Interface was delivered to the mass market for the very first time. No more would consumers be forced to gaze at the black screen of a machine. Instead, the personal computer and all its technological iterations to follow would become doorways to an expansive and vibrant world.

In many ways, the Chevy Volt is on the same trajectory of the original Macintosh. As a business venture, the signs aren't looking too favorable at the moment, but as a catalyst for market change and innovation, the signs are much brighter.

As enthusiastically stated by University of Virginia engineer, Jim Durand, "People are working furiously on energy storage technologies. They're making rapid advances. Costs are coming down. Performance is going up."

Researchers at Central Michigan University are utilizing the Volt as a test engine for improving lithium-ion battery technology, and, in the last few weeks, Scientific American reported that a new battery technology is in development which could propel vehicles up to 800 km (nearly 500 miles) on a single charge.

The Volt certainly can't be given total credit for all of these stirring efforts to advance energy storage and transportation technology, but it has demonstrated that big car companies are ready and willing to take a risk on an entirely new method of movement. Toyota and Ford are following Chevrolet and Nissan with entries into the electric and hybrid-electric vehicle markets this year.

Yes, in part thanks to the Volt, technology is moving forward. And as Steve Jobs quoted Bob Dylan at the launch of the original Macintosh, "The times, they are a-changin'."

Ross Pomeroy is the weekend editor of RealClearScience and regular contributor to the Newton Blog.