In 1962, President John F. Kennedy made a pronouncement that made a lot of people think he'd lost his mind: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade." According to GM's Vice Chairman of Global Product Development, Chevrolet's gas-electric plug-in electric hybrid is GM's moon shot. Wired magazine recently sat down with Bob Lutz and asked the Car Czar what would happen if the Volt doesn't succeed. "What if Kennedy hadn't pulled off the moon shot?" Bob wondered aloud. "If it doesn't work, it's not fatal. But if it does work, it will be sensational and it will have the same sort of symbolism." The U.S. put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, as promised. What are the chances the Volt will appear in a Chevy showroom by 2010?
Ever since the Chevy Volt burst forth from the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, "Maximum Bob" has been feeding an adoring press a steady diet of sound bites on the Volt's technology and timetable. The statements are frequently contradictory, usually unrealistic and subject to frequent change.
It began in March of last year, when Lutz promised a running Volt prototype by the end of 2007. A test mule with the Volt drivetrain crammed into an existing model would have provided reasons to be cheerful, part one. But it wasn't to be. In November, Bob revised his estimate: "Let's wait for the Easter Bunny."
In January, GM revealed the Volt's development team was having problems getting the mission critical, new technology batteries for testing from one of their suppliers. Recently, GM said that they'll have appropriate lithium-ion batteries "ready to demonstrate" by June (of this year). The reason for the new date? "Acceleration issues." We now learn that a Volt equipped with the current state-of-the-art batteries would require a full minute to amble from zero to sixty miles per hour.
And that's just the technology. When Bob first mooted Chevy's Plug-in Electric Hybrid (PHEV), he pegged the PHEV's price point at a Prius-competitive $30k. As soon as the Volt team realized what a suitable lithium-ion battery pack might cost, GM announced that they were considering leasing the battery packs for around $100/month– to keep the "total" price within reason. Easter Bunny or not, GM hasn't said whether or not they're still pursuing that particular hair-brained scheme.
Now the $30K selling price seems to be going the way of Jamie Lynn Spears' virginity. Speaking to Wired, Backpedalin' Bob stated "it doesn't look like that's going to be possible." The Volt's price "might get there on the second generation, and they say if they had a lot more time they might be able to cost-optimize it [but] I don't want to wait for cost optimization. I'd rather come out in 2010, and if it costs closer to 40 than 30, well, that's too bad." Too bad for the customer…
No matter what the final price, we still don't know when we might finally see a Volt on the road. At the beginning of this saga, Lutz claimed the Volt would be humming along in 2010. Then, at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show, Lutz said the Volt would hit the streets by November of '08. Now it's 2010. Or not. Apparently, November 2010 has become GM's "internal target." "You don't know what you don't know," Lutz told Wired. "Could it go later than 2010? Yes."
Deadline, schmeadline. Maximum Bob's still pumped on the Volt. He crows that it's "symbolic of a renaissance in the American auto industry… If we pull it off successfully, it can really put us back at the top of the heap of automotive technology instead of being called laggards that are being left behind by the Germans and the Japanese." That is, unless a Japanese manufacturer doesn't quietly introduce a fully-realized plug-in electric hybrid first, as Toyota's CEO has just promised to do.
Even IF GM rolls out a Volt by 2010, even IF it offers better performance than the next generation PHEV Prius, even IF it can compete with the segment leader on price, even IF it sells well, even IF it proves to be a reliable automobile, even IF it continues to sell, GM's Car Czar has already destroyed the Detroit automaker's credibility. And here's the real problem: the Volt probably won't do any of these things.
John F. Kennedy entered the space race saying a moon shot "will be done in the decade." GM has refused to fully commit itself to any deadline for the Volt, making the Hail Mary PHEV's appearance a moving target. Why? To avoid responsibility. And it is that difference– the difference between a culture of genuine accountability and GM's culture of endless streams of false, unrealized promises– that hobbles the Volt, and has brought GM to its knees.