General Motors is on an all-out push to ensure that its new Chevy Volt becomes the electric car of the mainstream U.S. market.  On July 1 the company launched a cross country tour introducing American communities to the car from Austin, Texas to New York, New York.  It’s pretty clear that the symbolism-freighted trip is designed to spur U.S. car buyers to hop aboard a revolutionary change in passenger car technology: the route covers 1,776 miles on a journey timed to end today,  Independence Day.

The reference to the American Revolution also shows that GM is right up in the grill of any skeptics who still doubt the viability of  an electric car in the U.S. market.  After all, the world pretty much figured that the American experiment in self-government was doomed to fail and hey, 234 years later we are still proving them wrong.  The choice of Austin and New York City as bookends is no accident, either.  It’s a pretty clear indication that GM’s mainstream market includes everybody no matter where they live, without dividing the country into “real Americans” and whoever else.

Bridging the Gap from Gasoline to Electricity

As reported by David Shepardson of the Detroit News, GM planned the route to show its customers  that the Volt can handle all kinds of driving conditions, from rural to suburban and urban.  The extended range vehicle comes with a gasoline engine that adds about 300 miles to the 40-mile battery charge, which, as most of you now know, means that the Volt can be used as a conventional gasoline-powered car: just keep filling up the gas tank instead of recharging the battery on those long road trips. This is GM’s answer to the perceived problem of range anxiety.  Since the gas engine is not connected to a drive train (it runs a generator that provides electrical power), the car will still handle and respond as if it was being driven off the battery. If the mass market is not quite ready for an electric vehicle now, the extended-range design provides a way for consumers to get their feet wet before plunging in.

Powering into the U.S. Electric Vehicle Market

GM seems to be anticipating that consumer wariness will quickly slide away once the early adopters start telling their friends.  It plans to make the Volt available in all 50 states and triple its output from 10,000 in 2011 to 30,000 in 2012, and it’s alerting dealers to gear up their services with trained technicians and additional customer support.  Apparently a Volt minivan is already in the works, too.  Meanwhile the competition is also ramping up. Of course there’s the Nissan LEAF, and just around the time that GM started the Volt on its road trip, BMW released a sketch of its first electric car, and Volkswagen announced that its E-Up! electric car is launching in the U.S. in 2013.