General Motors Death Watch 169: Those Who Do Not Learn From History Try to Rewrite It

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

“Not making a car like the Prius was a mistake.” In recent days, GM’s Car Czar has amped-up his pro-hybrid rhetoric, including this mea culpa. Clearly, Vice Chair Bob Lutz’s enthusiasm for gas – electric products has undergone a volte face, inspired by his fatalistic conclusion that only alt power can satisfy federal regulators’ mandates for increased fuel efficiency. But in his newfound zeal, Maximum Bob is rewriting history. In the interests of truth, let’s set the record straight.

“We had the technology to come out with a hybrid at the same time as Toyota… In hindsight, it was a mistake… We made the mistake and we won’t make it again” (ABC News).

Lutz is referring to GM’s 1996 EV1, whose release predated the Prius by a model year. More specifically, the year after the Prius began its long, slow, difficult march into the automotive mainstream, GM introduced several alt power variants of their all-electric EV1 at the Detroit Auto Show. They displayed a diesel/electric parallel hybrid, gas turbine/electric series hybrid, fuel cell/electric and compressed natural gas low emission internal combustion engine EV1.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say GM should have developed the EV1 as a gas – electric hybrid. But the EV1 was NEVER designed as a mainstream vehicle. It was produced solely to satisfy the demands of California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle regulations and, latterly, PR. The exotic powerplants the EV1 could have been offered were blue sky. Besides, it’s quite a leap to think that GM would have backed the right horse in this alt power race when, in fact, they didn’t.

In contrast, Toyota chose one environmentally-friendly technology and stuck with it– through three years of development and many more thereafter. Right from the start, the Synergy Drive-equipped Prius was designed to be both scaleable and affordable. In terms of price, range, convenience and comfort, the dumpy first generation Prius was irrefutably more of a “real world” vehicle than the 90-miles-per-charge EV1.

“Lutz said being late to the market with hybrids has cost GM billions in sales because it lost its image of having superior technology” (Detroit News). “I think the company has learned when you step out and do bold things, you win” (ABC News).

Truth be told, GM hasn’t had an “image of superior technology” since the mid-fifties. Since then, GM’s half-baked efforts to cultivate “superior technology” have destroyed its image, wounded its rep and shed sales. Corvair, Buick aluminum V8, Vega, the Wankel rotary engine, Cadillac V8-6-4, Oldsmobile diesel, X-car FWD, plastic intake manifolds— GM’s list of abortive cutting edge technologies is long and depressingly consistent.

GM has not learned from this history, and if it has, it’s learned the wrong lesson. In its attempt to recapture the technological high ground, GM has developed four hybrid systems, all of which are bold, none of which is commercially viable. GM could stick with one system and try to use economies of scale to generate a profit. But it hasn’t. Once again, it’s chasing a new technology.

“GM’s initial estimates of 60,000 to 100,000 annual Volt sales could grow five-fold, Lutz said, adding that the car is a ‘game changer’ on par with the Ford Model T.” (Detroit News).

The Volt has absolutely nothing in common with the Model T. Henry Ford’s “game changer” was all about the rationalized production of a quality, economical low-cost car. The affordable, reliable Model T was the most profitable industrial undertaking the world had ever seen.

The $2500 Tata Nano is a “game changer” on a par with the Crazy Henry’s Tin Lizzy. To suggest that the $40k-plus Chevrolet Volt (or the forthcoming $48k plug-in Saturn Vue) will revolutionize transportation and save GM’s bacon is the worst kind of hyperbole: the kind that deceives its originator into self-destructive delusions of grandeur.

“I don't think it would be a vast overstatement to say the Volt is in many ways symbolic of a renaissance in the American auto industry” (Bob Lutz, Wired).

Lutz is re-writing history in advance. While it’s often said that history is written by the winners, it’s equally true that propaganda is written by its losers.

In any case, the U.S. auto industry has already experienced its renaissance— in the transplant factories dotted across the South. Volt or no, GM will never– can never– recapture the market share its shed over the last five decades.

(Lutz comparing the Volt to the moon shot) “Yes. That's a good analogy. If it doesn't work, it's not fatal. But if it does work, it will be sensational” (Wired).

The history here is apt. The moon shot was a hugely expensive and unsustainable exercise in national pride that enriched its subcontractors but not its “investors” (i.e. taxpayers). The Volt will eventually appear. But it will not save GM. It will be a historic achievement marking the end of GM's history.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Rix Rix on Mar 27, 2008

    Am I the only one who sees this as a positive? GM actually admitting it's mistakes instead of just claiming "our product is competitive with thte Toyota" over and over? Incidentally, I fail to see the Nano as a game changer. It's a glorified motor scooter and there isn't enough profit in the $2500 after making a car to change the game much. I don't think there is enough profit in the below $6k and above $2.5k range to make a revolutionary product. Still, I expect to see many nano innovation such as adhesive assembly, show up in major manufacturer cars in the next generation.

  • DC DC on Apr 25, 2008

    Different times, different market conditions, etc. It's easy for you to go around and beat the dead horse further by chastizing them for killing the EV1 and go on playing the game of what might have been. However, they made a decision based on what was going on at the time. By the way, Toyota had the RAV-4 EV, which was also killed... The Volt is potentially the first in a new generation of primarily electric cars. I don't see how the Volt is constantly twisted into something so negative. Unless you're Toyota, what have you got to be so worried about? It's almost comical at this point to see the twist put into things to make them into signs that GM is on the deathbed.

  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.
  • Lou_BC "That’s expensive for a midsize pickup" All of the "offroad" midsize trucks fall in that 65k USD range. The ZR2 is probably the cheapest ( without Bison option).
  • Lou_BC There are a few in my town. They come out on sunny days. I'd rather spend $29k on a square body Chevy
  • Lou_BC I had a 2010 Ford F150 and 2010 Toyota Sienna. The F150 went through 3 sets of brakes and Sienna 2 sets. Similar mileage and 10 year span.4 sets tires on F150. Truck needed a set of rear shocks and front axle seals. The solenoid in the T-case was replaced under warranty. I replaced a "blend door motor" on heater. Sienna needed a water pump and heater blower both on warranty. One TSB then recall on spare tire cable. Has a limp mode due to an engine sensor failure. At 11 years old I had to replace clutch pack in rear diff F150. My ZR2 diesel at 55,000 km. Needs new tires. Duratrac's worn and chewed up. Needed front end alignment (1st time ever on any truck I've owned).Rear brakes worn out. Left pads were to metal. Chevy rear brakes don't like offroad. Weird "inside out" dents in a few spots rear fenders. Typically GM can't really build an offroad truck issue. They won't warranty. Has fender-well liners. Tore off one rear shock protector. Was cheaper to order from GM warehouse through parts supplier than through Chevy dealer. Lots of squeaks and rattles. Infotainment has crashed a few times. Seat heater modual was on recall. One of those post sale retrofit.Local dealer is horrific. If my son can't service or repair it, I'll drive 120 km to the next town. 1st and last Chevy. Love the drivetrain and suspension. Fit and finish mediocre. Dealer sucks.
  • MaintenanceCosts You expect everything on Amazon and eBay to be fake, but it's a shame to see fake stuff on Summit Racing. Glad they pulled it.