General Motors Death Watch 160: Promises Promises / Volt Birth Watch 24: Fly Me to the Moon

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams

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.

Frank Williams
Frank Williams

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  • Tankd0g Tankd0g on Jan 19, 2008

    Product development is a game of poker. Think about it, what other car slated to be on sale in 2 years time are you hearing the manufaturer boast about in such a mannor? NONE. You know sweet f*** all about the next gen Prius. Why do you think we only get spy shots of heavily camo'd cars right up until the moment they are unveiled at auto shows? Why would you tell your competition and the world where you are in development and exactly what you are doing? It's SUICIDE. Unless Bob is lying through his teeth and the car is almost ready to go all they are doing is telling Toyota not to worry, you still have the market locked up for the next 3-4 years and you were right, a serial hybrid doesn't seem to be as easy as we thought. I find it incredible that a site full of car enthusiasts fail to see what is so blatantly obvious. Bob is doing EXACTLY what we all love to heckle Tesla for doing, big baseless promises followed by ever revised diminished targets. The silicon valley .com pump and dump, it's no way to run a car company.

  • Potemkin Potemkin on Jan 21, 2008

    Accountability? Responsibility? Not likely, remember it's the General, where nothing suceeds like failure and if you screw up you move up. How can we expect better from an organization that has continued to lose market share but refuses to change the team that got them there. I saw the Volt at the LA show and loved the styling, too bad we may never see it on the road.

  • Wolfwagen Pennsylvania - Two long straights, 1 medium straight, 1 super short straight and a bunch of curves all on one end
  • Haze3 EV median weight is in the range of 4500-5500lbs, similar to the low end of full size pickup trucks and SUV's or typical mid-size PU's and SUV's. Obviously, EV Hummers and PU's are heavier but, on average, EV=PU or mid/full SUV is about right. EV's currently account for ~1% of the cars on the road. PU's account for 17% and SUV's count for over 40%. If we take out light SUV's, then call it 30% SUV or so. So, large-ish PU's and SUV's, together, account for ~50% of the US fleet vs 1% for EV's. As such, the fleet is ALREADY heavy. The problem is that EV's will be making the currently lighter 50% heavier, not that PU/SUV haven't already done most of the damage on avg mass.Sure, the issue is real but EV responsibility is not. If you want to get after heavies, that means getting after PU/SUV's (the current problem by 40-50x) first and foremost.
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  • Theflyersfan My dad had a 1998 C280 that was rock solid reliable until around 80,000 miles and then it wasn't. Corey might develop a slight right eyelid twitch right about now, but it started with a sunroof that leaked. And the water likely damaged some electric components because soon after the leaks developed, the sunroof stopped working. And then the electrical gremlins took hold. Displays that flickered at times, lights that sometimes decided illumination was for wimps so stayed home, and then the single wiper issue. That thing decided to eat motors. He loved that car but knew when to fold the hand. So he bought a lightly used, off lease E-class. Had that for less than two years before he was ready to leave it in South Philly, keys in the ignition, doors unlocked, and a "Take it please" sign on the windshield. He won't touch another Benz now.
  • Detlump A lot of people buy SUVs because they're easier to get in and out of. After decades of longer, lower, wider it was refreshing to have easier ingress/egress offered by an SUV.Ironically, the ease of getting in and out of my Highlander is very similar to my 56 Cadillac.