Volt-Face for GM

by Richard T. Stuebi

Fascinating article in this month’s Atlantic profiling the herculean efforts apparently being undertaken by General Motors (NYSE: GM) to launch its plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevy Volt, by the incredibly ambitious deadline of 2010.

I took away the following thoughts from the article:

1. GM seems to actually recognize that they really didn’t give it the full college try with their previous electric vehicle work, the EV1 program, whose demise was profiled so blisteringly in the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?.

2. While GM is using the Volt program as a way to reinvent and redefine itself as a nimble company responsive to customer preferences, it must be noted that GM tried this with the new Saturn line twenty years ago too — and look where GM is now.

3. Bob Lutz — the GM Vice Chairman who is on record for stating his opinion that global warming is a “total crock of s**t” — is the key person within the kingdom who seized on the need for the Volt, being amazed at the gall of tiny start-up Tesla Motors daring to build an electric vehicle.

4. GM is being pretty gutsy by deciding to house the Volt within its core brand — Chevrolet — rather than insulate it in its own brand in case the project/car failed.

5. The Volt program appears to be pretty much “open source”, allowing the public in to see its progress. My guess is that this is to better manage the public’s expectations along the way, minimizing the potential for any bad surprises.

6. The project was launched without a business plan or any marketing/cost projections — no doubt from the huge public frenzy spawned by the concept car’s unveiling just 18 months ago in January 2007 — and still seems to run under a “damn-the-torpedos” philosophy, almost akin to NASA’s Apollo program of the 1960’s.

Within a couple of years, we’ll see what ultimately emerges from the Volt program, but no-one can doubt its audacity — which is a word I thought I’d never use in connection with GM.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

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