In Defense of… GM's ADD
In GM Death Watch 171, Mr. Farago contends that GM suffers from corporate-grade Attention Deficiency Disorder (ADD). He’s probably right. However, some ADD may be a good thing, if not a necessity, in an automobile company’s culture. Any carmaker operating in this period of uncertainty– recession, 25 percent higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, high fuel prices, CO2 emission concerns, and more– would be foolish NOT to invest the time and energy into developing as many alternative solutions as possible.
Yes, GM is definitely moving in several different directions at once. However, I’d also argue that the mandated fuel economy improvements over the coming years (both driven by federal regulations and demands of the marketplace) will require a multi-pronged approach to improving fuel economy/reducing fossil fuel dependence. I don’t think there is any one correct answer about how to get GM’s fleet to 35 miles per gallon.
In addition to fuel cells, hybrids and diesels, GM will also have to do work on lightening its relatively porcine vehicles and improving the economy and refinement of their traditional gasoline-powered engines. Pruning the remaining four-speed automatics from the lineup and replacing them with six speeds, CVTs or DSGs would also incrementally help both fuel economy and performance. Adding gasoline direct injection technology to more engines could also improve both economy and hydrocarbon emissions.
Each little piece of the puzzle gets them a little closer to the magic 35 miles per gallon figure (or 50 mpg if California gets its way).
GM has been (rightfully) criticized in the past for not bothering to make longer-term investments in technologies such as hybrids. Such failure to invest in advanced technologies during the SUV boom of the 1990s in large part led to GM’s need to play catch-up to Toyota’s hybrid juggernaut. Nobody knows exactly what form our personal transport will take in the next decade or two. It seems prudent for GM to try a few different technologies, so they're not left in the dust of a company that was lucky or smart enough to pick the right one to invest in.
General Motors is also a victim of its own historical fits and starts; engineering by press release rings hollow after a few years.
Car enthusiasts are tired of hearing about the Camaro and Volt, neither of which can be purchased, yet are prominently featured in press releases, websites and even advertisements. Nobody believes GM when it says that it will be an environmental leader; how can the same company that builds the Hummer H2 and more full-size pickups and SUVs than any other company on the planet say that with a straight face?
Because the automaker has very little environmental credibility, it feels the need to overcompensate with five-page advertisements in auto rags about their alt-fuel initiatives, while spending precious R&D resources on future technologies that may or may not come to fruition. But they really don’t have any choice, especially if they want to a) remain viable in a world of $5 gas and b) attempt to change perceptions.
GM is not unique in its shotgun approach to improving fuel economy. Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Honda (among others) are either considering or introducing diesels in their trucks (Ford, Nissan and Toyota) or cars (Acura TSX, Mitsubishi), while still developing hybrids (Ford, Toyota and Honda) and hydrogen fuel cells (Honda FCX). The differentiator may be management talent (or a lack of) among these companies.
The better-managed car companies will manage to juggle all of the irons in the fire successfully, and the others won't. From that standpoint, I share Mr. Farago's concern.
GM has not yet proven to me, or many others, that it has the capability or resources to follow through on the development of many of these projects. However, it knows that it has to get the Volt out the door someday at some price, the light duty truck diesel’s development is finished, the two-mode hybrid is on the market, and the company now offers modern six-speed automatics on most of its vehicles.
Other than the Volt, still left on the to-do list: taking some mass out of its vehicles without sacrificing comfort and safety and continuing with either hydrogen fuel cell development or further electric vehicle (E-Flex) development.
I believe that in the coming years, we’ll see each manufacturer taking a different approach to the issue of reducing CO2 emissions and fuel consumption. The creative ones that execute their strategies successfully will own the market. Those who bet on the wrong technologies will be left gasping for air. I don’t think we’re at the point where we can say that GM is trying too many different things, because we just don’t know what combination of GM’s projects will earn its keep. And then some.
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