“Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone? … One must know what one wants and that one wants”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols
This week’s news that GM would stop production of the Chevrolet Volt for the third time in its brief lifespan came roaring out of the proverbial blind spot. Having watched the Volt’s progress closely from gestation through each month’s sales results, it was no secret to me that the Volt was seriously underperforming to expectations. But in the current media environment, anything that happens three times is a trend, and the latest shutdown (and, even more ominously, the accompanying layoffs) was unmistakeable. Not since succumbing to government-organized bankruptcy and bailout has GM so publicly cried “uncle” to the forces of the market, and I genuinely expected The General to continue to signal optimism for the Volt’s long-term prospects. After all, sales in February were up dramatically, finally breaking the 1,000 unit per month barrier. With gasoline prices on the march, this latest shutdown was far from inevitable.
And yet, here we are. Now that GM is undeniably signaling that the Volt is a Corvette-style halo car, with similar production and sales levels, my long-standing skepticism about the Volt’s chances seems to be validated. But in the years since GM announced its intention to build the Volt, this singular car has become woven into the history and yes, the mythology of the bailout era. Now, at the apparent end of its mass-market ambitions, I am struck not with a sense of schadenfreude, but of bewilderment. If the five year voyage of Volt hype is over, we have a lot of baggage to unpack.
When a history of the Volt is written, it will be difficult not to conclude that the Volt has been the single most politicized automobile since the Corvair. Seemingly due to timing alone, GM’s first serious environmental halo car became an icon of government intervention in private industry, a perception that is as true as it is false. I hoped to capture this tension in a July 2010 Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which I argued that
the Volt appears to be exactly the kind of green-at-all-costs car that some opponents of the bailout feared the government might order G.M. to build. Unfortunately for this theory, G.M. was already committed to the Volt when it entered bankruptcy.
But by that time, the Volt was already so completely transformed into a political football, the second sentence of this quote was entirely ignored by political critics on the right. The culture of partisanship being what it is in this country, any nuance to my argument was lost in the selective quoting on one side and the mockery of my last name on the other. One could argue that that this politicization was unnecessary or counter-productive, but it was also inevitable.
The Volt began life as a blast from GM’s Motorama past: a futuristic four-place coupe concept with a unique drivetrain (which still defies apples-to-apples efficiency comparisons with other cars), a fast development schedule and constantly-changing specifications, price points and sales expectations. It’s important to remember that the Volt was controversial as a car practically from the moment GM announced (and then began changing) production plans, becoming even more so when the production version emerged looking nothing like the concept. But it wasn’t until President Obama’s auto task force concluded that the Volt seemed doomed to lose money, and yet made no effort to suspend its development as a condition for the bailout, that a car-guy controversy began to morph into a mainstream political issue.
At that point, most of the car’s fundamental controversies were well known, namely its price, size, elusive efficiency rating, and competition. Well before the car was launched, it was not difficult to predict its challenges on the market, even without the added headwinds of ideological objections (which should have been mitigated by the fact that they were actually calling for government intervention in GM’s product plans while decrying the same). But GM’s relentless hype, combined with Obama’s regular rhetorical references to the Volt, fueled the furor. Then, just two months after Volt sales began trickle in, Obama’s Department of Energy released a still-unrepudiated document, claiming that 505,000 Volts would be sold in the US by 2015 (including 120,000 this year). By making the Volt’s unrealistic sales goals the centerpiece of a plan to put a million plug-in-vehicles on the road, the Obama Administration cemented the Volt’s political cross-branding.
When GM continued to revise its 2012 US sales expectations to the recent (and apparently still wildly-unrealistic) 45,000 units, I asked several high-level GM executives why the DOE didn’t adjust its estimates as well. But rather than definitively re-calibrate the DOE’s expectations, they refused to touch the subject. The government, they implied, could believe what it wanted. Having seen its CEO removed by the President, GM’s timid executive culture was resigned to the Volt’s politicized status, and would never make things awkward for its salesman-in-chief. And even now, with production of the Volt halted for the third time, GM continues to play into the Volt’s politicized narrative: does anyone think it is coincidence that The General waited until three days after the Michigan Republican primary (and a bailout-touting Obama speech) to cut Volt production for the third time?
Of course, having used the Volt as a political prop itself from the moment CEO Rick Wagoner drove a development mule version to congressional hearings as penance for traveling to the previous hearing in a private jet, GM is now trying to portray the Volt as a martyr at the hands of out-of-control partisanship. And the Volt’s father Bob Lutz certainly does have a point when he argues that the recent Volt fire controversy was blown out of proportion by political hacks. But blaming the Volt’s failures on political pundits gives them far too much credit, ignores GM’s own politicization of the Volt, and misses the real causes of the Volt’s current, unenviable image.
The basic problem with the Volt isn’t that it’s a bad car that nobody could ever want; it is, in fact, quite an engineering achievement and a rather impressive drive. And if GM had said all along that it would serve as an “anti-Corvette,” selling in low volumes at a high price, nobody could now accuse it of failure. Instead, GM fueled totally unrealistic expectations for Volt, equating it with a symbol of its rebirth even before collapsing into bailout. The Obama administration simply took GM’s hype at face value, and saw it as a way to protect against the (flawed) environmentalist argument that GM deserved to die because of “SUV addiction” alone. And in the transition from corporate sales/image hype to corporatist political hype, the Volt’s expectations were driven to ever more unrealistic heights, from which they are now tumbling. Beyond the mere sales disappointment, the Volt has clearly failed to embody any cultural changes GM might have undergone in its dark night of the soul, instead carrying on The General’s not-so-proud tradition of moving from one overhyped short-term savior to the next.
Now, as in the Summer of 2010, I can’t help but compare the Volt with its nemesis and inspiration, the Toyota Prius. When the Toyota hybrid went on sale in the US back in 2000, it was priced nearly the same as it is today (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars), and was not hyped as a savior. Instead, Toyota accepted losses on early sales, and committed itself to building the Prius’s technology and brand over the long term. With this approach, GM could have avoided the Volt’s greatest criticism (its price) and embarrassment (sales shortfalls), and presented the extended-range-electric concept as a long-term investment.
Even now, GM can still redefine the Volt as a long-term play that will eventually be worth its development and PR costs… but only as long as it candidly takes ownership of its shortcomings thus far and re-sets expectations to a credible level. And whether The General will defy and embarrass its political patrons by destroying the “million EVs by 2015″ house of cards in order to do so, remains very much to be seen. One thing is certain: as long as it puts PR and political considerations before the long-term development of healthy technology and brands, GM will struggle with a negative and politicized image. And the Volt will be seen not as a symbol of GM’s long-term vision and commitment, but of its weakness, desperation, inconstancy and self-delusion.