Editorial: Between The Lines: Maximum Ambivalence

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Bob Lutz needs to clear something up. Fun lovers, report to GM Fastlane, stat! It seems that the Man of Maximum is steamed about a WaPo piece which he complains casts him as “ambivalent” towards his beloved Volt. In fact, the piece is a sweeping look at the Volt’s place in GM, and it contains more than a few anecdotes that reflect poorly on GM management (shocking, I know). And the facts of the matter clearly illustrate that the Volt’s importance arises from political considerations far more than the inherent passion of GM’s product planners to create reliable, fuel-efficient transportation. Hence the accusation of ambivalence. But political motivation has to be disguised with pure intention (no matter how implausible) in order to work. And so Lutz is off to man the crumbling Maximum rampart.

Lutz writes,

The reporter said that we are “ambivalent” about the Volt, largely because it flies in the face of what he perceives me to be all about, namely speed, horsepower and burning rubber – and fossil fuels. In fact, he neatly expanded this ambivalence angle to describe GM, and Detroit as a whole, as the auto industry faces a new future.

Look, I know how it works. A reporter has a great idea for a story, with a terrific angle, and, even if the facts indicate otherwise, he can’t help but try to shoehorn the story into the angle. It’s just too good an idea!

Yes, Bob Lutz knows how the media thing works. And the WaPo juxtaposes the Volt and the Camaro,

. . . type of vehicle they and their colleagues in the press insist GM is all about, the gas guzzler. Trucks, SUVs and muscle cars. They would have you believe that GM and the other American auto companies are the only manufacturers on the planet that have ever built any SUVs. They would have you believe that we are secretly bemoaning the coming of the Volt because it means the end of cars like the Camaro and the Corvette, cars they don’t think any Americans want to drive anyway.

Huh? Bob, the Post quotes you as saying,

When you get out into the marketplace, it’s probably just 5 percent of the public that desperately wants something environmentally sound and is willing to pay a premium for it. I would say the East and West Coast intellectual establishment kind of lives in its own world. When you get to the broad American marketplace, excitement is still kind of defined in the way it used to be.

If that doesn’t betray some ambivalence towards hybrid vehicles, then what does? If America doesn’t want Volt, Bob, why are you building it? Actually, the Post piece addresses this directly, explaining,

In the summer of 2008, at a forum attended by other auto executives and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, Wagoner recalibrated his position. Under increasing pressure from government officials to demonstrate GM’s broad commitment to more fuel-efficient vehicles, the beleaguered chief executive confidently restated GM’s goal to bring out the Volt in 2010.

But that doesn’t jive with Bob’s self-image. Political lackey he is not!

How many times since the concept car’s debut in 2007 have I said (and been widely quoted as saying) that this is the most exciting program I have worked on in my entire career? I meant it every time I said it – anyone in the press who’s spent any time at all covering the auto industry knows I don’t do “lip service.”

But if this were true, Lutz wouldn’t be blustering about his deep, abiding passion for the Volt. He’d say something along the lines of “you’re damn right I’m ambivalent about it. It’s a $40k halo car that doesn’t go fast or look like sex. That doesn’t make sense to someone like me.” Instead, he demonstrates his pathos-laden (and politically corect) ambivalence towards the very car the WaPo accuses him of favoring: the Camaro:

Given the tough economic times and the high priority of fuel economy, we were almost wishing we hadn’t done the Camaro. We looked at it as something radically mistimed.

Which it is. But Lutz’s conspicuous ambivalence only shows how willing he is to reshuffle his priorities based on political considerations. If Lutz was brought into GM to provide clear-sighted leadership on product quality, he has clearly lost the independent, instinctive edge he once promised. Absent the need for a working compass of the American consumer psyche (thanks to bailout billions), Lutz has become little more than a breathless apologist for a program he clearly doesn’t think will be successful on its own merits. The curse of governmental control can already be felt at GM. What a crock of shit.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

More by Edward Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 17 comments
  • Anchorman33 Anchorman33 on Jun 10, 2009

    @tedward I'll grant you I ignored the "paying a hefty premium" part of the quote in my comment. Many people are willing to make some sacrifice, be it a little more money, smaller car, or driving dynamics for the sake of economy/environmentalism/etc. The Volt is theoretically in that same boat - although it's like comparing the Titanic to a rowboat (in more ways than one). My comments were meant to indicate that a location like where I live that is historically not known for it's environmental responsibility supports a fair number of these vehicles, other places known for environmental activism should have more support, money, and chance of actually selling a Volt or two. I guess this highlights my conflict with GM. I want them to succeed, but when there are so many other good options out there that are more appealing and won't take a decade or more to pay back the price premium for the fuel savings, who it going to buy it when that's the main selling point? And there are 2-3 other good vehicles on the lot as well. Pity.

  • Fastbike Fastbike on Jun 11, 2009

    @ Ronnie Schreiber

    There are about 760 million cars in the world today. Emissions from just 15 giant container ships are greater than the pollutants from all 760 million cars. A large container ship burns 3600 gals/hr. Assuming 24hr operation for 15 ships, that is 1.3m gals per day. Of course they don't operate 24/7 so they actual figures will be lower. Total oil production liquids (crude, condensate, tar sands, ethanol etc) is currently ~84.45M barrels / day @ 42gals/b gives 3.6 Billion gals / day. 31.2% of this is light distillates, primarily petrol, diesel and jet fuel, so that is 1.1 B gals/day. Energy figures from BP Statistical Review 2009.