100 Million Miles in the Chevrolet Volt

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- No, that's not a typo. In the next couple of days, owners of the Chevrolet Volt will have driven a cumulative 100 million miles. That is more than 200 round trips to the moon.

Why is this significant? When the Chevrolet Volt was first conceived in 2006, and finally put into traffic in 2010 after four years of development and testing, one of the key questions was whether this radically new automotive propulsion architecture would be reliable. How frequent would repairs be in the first 150,000 miles? How about in the first 400,000 miles?

As important as fuel savings are, much of the future of electrified cars hangs on their reliability record. If a car like the Volt ends up with a bad rap due to parts that break down and keep it in the shop too much, that would risk soiling the reputation of all new automotive propulsion technologies. So we have to know where the Volt stands on this.

Back to the 100 million miles for a minute. You deserve to know where all of these numbers come from.

General Motors ( GM) publishes the cumulative number of miles driven on its Volt Web site as they are reported real-time. How many cars are involved? Based on Chevrolet's production and sales numbers, we can estimate that it has manufactured around 35,000 Volts to date since November 2010.


Out of these cars, approximately 25,000 are on the road and around 10,000 are in transit to dealerships or otherwise in inventory. To be clear, the Chevrolet Volt is sold on multiple continents under a few different badges: Opel in Continental Europe, Vauxhall in the U.K. and Holden in Australia. Sales outside the U.S. started in February 2012. It's the same car, made on the same assembly line, in Hamtramck, Detroit.

With 100 million miles in total and 25,000 cars in traffic, each Volt has travelled on average 4,000 miles. That's not that interesting, because we would prefer to know how far the most frequent drivers have taken their Volts. For this, we turn to a Web site called VoltStats.net.

According to the site, 1,236 Volt owners -- a 5% sample of the Volts now in traffic -- have volunteered to have their real-time statistics posted on VoltStats.net. There is a treasure trove of information that it far too much to describe in detail in this article. You are highly recommended to go there and slice and dice the data yourself, sorting by columns, and so on.

Most relevant here is the fact that several Volts tracked by the site have gone over 40,000 miles. If you extrapolate, you can estimate that there are another 20 times that number of Volts in total that have gone similar distances, with the possibility of a few outliers who have traveled even farther.

The Volt's Fuel Economy

It is important here to refresh everyone's memory as to how the Chevrolet Volt works. It's actually a bit more complicated than I have space to illustrate here, but the simplest way to describe the Volt is as follows:

The Chevrolet Volt is a powerful electric car, which can travel on average 38 miles until the battery has reached a certain low level. At that point, when the battery is, say, 20% from the bottom, a fairly regular 1.4-liter gasoline engine kicks in to keep the battery level from falling any further. This means that the powerful electric motor can continue to drive the car for as long as you have gasoline in the tank, which is nine gallons in the Volt.


When the gasoline engine kicks in, it will drink from the nine-gallon tank to the tune of 38 miles per gallon on average. That basically means you can go 342 miles after the 38 "all-electric" miles are depleted, for a total range of 380 miles. As with all cars, your mileage will vary, but that's the average. In other words, the Volt will take you on that cross-country road trip no differently than any other purely gasoline car.

What does this mean for the average person's fuel economy in a Volt? There is no easy typical scenario here, just a strict mathematical average. Different driving patterns mean that your miles per gallon will vary from over 2,500 MPG, which many people are achieving, all the way down to a theoretical minimum of 38 MPG. The highest Volt MPG that has been measured to date is 6,200 MPG.

If you rarely drive more than 50 miles before charging the battery, you can get away with driving your Volt on as little as a couple of gallons per year. Hence, the 6,200 MPG is achieved.

Most people, however, have to drive a little longer than 38 or 50 miles from time to time. At that point, your driving blend will take your MPG down to a level that depends on your mix of driving and ability to charge the battery.

Chevrolet publishes the "all-electric miles" as part of the 100-million-miles driven cumulative to date, and that number is 63%. What does that mean for the truly fleet-wide MPG? If 37% of your driving happens at 38 MPG and 63% at infinite MPG (electric), then one gallon takes you (100/37 x 38 MPG) = 103 miles. So, 103 MPG would be the cumulative fleet-wide mix.

This obviously doesn't account for the electricity consumed. While that is something I and many other people have written about many times before, suffice it to say that basically you drive around 3 miles per kWh. Since the nationwide price of electricity is around 11c per kWh, it would cost you $440 to drive 12,000 miles purely on electricity (zero on gasoline).

The Volt's Reliability, by the Numbers

With 100 million miles driven in the Chevrolet Volt, what has been the reliability? By all accounts, it has been fantastic. I am unable to find more than the most random and rare issue having been reported. If you can find some examples -- any, even the tiniest glitch -- let me know. I really would like to know.


Why has the Volt had such superior reliability? The reason is similar to why a computer with a solid-state drive has a better reliability than one with a hard disk drive. There are simply fewer moving parts. The electric motor has almost none of these items: belts, hoses, oils, spark plugs, fans, valves, distributor, transmission, and so forth.

But the Volt also has a gasoline generator, you say? Yes, and as a result, it has all or most of those moving parts listed above. The counter argument is that a Volt-style gasoline engine, when it operates as a generator, as opposed to being tied to the drive shaft as the main means of propulsion, can be run in a more gentle and controlled manner, putting less strain on the system end-to-end. You can see this in the lack of a traditional transmission in the Volt, for example -- it's much simplified!

For example, I'm on track to go well over 40,000 miles before an oil change in my Volt. Chances are the oil will have to be changed because of its age, rather because it's worn out. Service thus far has consisted of... tire rotations.

Bottom line: The Volt has Superior Reliability

Are you tired of repair bills and car trouble? After 100 million miles, the architecture of the Chevrolet Volt has proven potentially more reliable than that of any other car. Depending on what you assume for gasoline prices vs. electricity prices, and your driving habits, there is another important reason to consider a more electrified car: Your long-term maintenance and repair costs will likely be significantly lower.

At the time of publication, the author was long TSLA.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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