GM's Apple Moment: Could It Already Be Time To Dump The Volt?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Some time ago, I made the unpleasant discovery that Oprah Winfrey publishes a magazine devoted entirely to herself. It’s called “O!” and every month there is a photo of Oprah herself on the cover. It’s almost impossible to imagine the kind of people who would buy such a magazine, but the same could be said about a variety of products from Kenneth Cole’s Indonesian garbage shoes to “Four Loko” alcopops.

The Chevrolet Volt is TTAC’s Oprah. Not only is it overweight and despised by most right-thinking people (in a few senses of the phrase), it appears on our front page more than any other car. We’ve reviewed it at least three times, discussed it endlessly, and even attended an owner’s gathering.

We’ve recently heard that GM wants to be like Apple. Here’s the problem: GM already is like Apple. Not the current Apple, mind you, but the divided, contentious, collapsing (Cr)Apple of the early Eighties. That company had a “Volt” of its own. It was called “Lisa”, and I was there on the day it was unveiled.

The story of the Apple Lisa can be found many places on the Internet, including a Wiki page that has been slowly whipped into shape over the past couple of years. Here’s the precis: In the late Seventies, Apple decided to introduce a successor to it’s wildly successful Apple ][. “Feature creep”, wild enthusiasm, and a desire to leapfrog the competition rather than merely beat it resulted in the introduction of a $9,999 computer that was difficult to understand, slow to operate, and almost hopelessly proprietary in its hardware and software. By the time of its introduction, the Lisa had already been partially abandoned by its development team. A competing project — the “Macintosh” — ended up defining Apple’s future, while the Lisa was doomed to become a technological dead end.

I attended the Lisa premiere at Micro Center in Upper Arlington, Ohio, nearly thirty years ago. I was already a proficient AppleBasic programmer and Apple ][ hardware hack, but I was also a big reader of BYTE magazine and I knew that graphical user interfaces were the wave of the future. The fabled Xerox Star had been the first “PC” to offer a GUI, but no nine-year-old kid in America was ever going to get time on one. The Atari “ST” and Commodore “Amiga” were on the way, each featuring a full-color GUI, but neither would beat the Lisa to market. Therefore, the Lisa was a big deal and I made sure my father bullied my way into the front of the group when the sheet was lifted (literally; it was a computer on a cylindrical display platform, under a sheet) and the Midwest was exposed to the Lisa for the first time.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that a $9,995 computer wasn’t going to set the world on fire, particularly in an era when a new Oldsmobile Cutlass cost less than that, but Apple had become a navel-gazing maze of slightly insane people who had been isolated from the real world by a tidal wave of cash, success, and public acclaim. The Lisa arrived with a bang but barely sold a whimper’s worth of volume.

To begin with, the Lisa didn’t deliver what it promised. The display wasn’t as big as we’d hoped, the resolution wasn’t as good, and performance inside the applications was dog slow. The proprietary floppy disks were hideously expensive and difficult to find. Peripherals were nonexistent. Even if you didn’t care about any of the above and possessed a new car’s worth of cash to drop on a Lisa, your local Apple dealer might not be able to get you one due to production issues.

Does any of this sound familiar? I bet it does — to Volt intenders. The Volt has consistently under-delivered on its promises, from the styling to the open-road fuel mileage. It costs more than anyone outside of GM’s own insane maze thinks is reasonable . The man on the street doesn’t want one and the the Volt true believers couldn’t take delivery thanks to restricted production.

Lisa wasn’t Apple’s only major project of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The Apple ][ was undergoing futher development, first into the Apple //e which had the amazing ability to use lowercase letters and then into the IIgs which was wildly successful in the educational market. The “Macintosh” project was developing a more direct competitor for the standard-priced GUI offerings from Atari and Commodore, and after a rough start (the almost entirely worthless 128kb original Macintosh) it, too, became a success.

At the time, neither of those projects was considered to be quite the “moonshot” that Lisa was, the same way that Ford’s Escape and Fusion Hybrids don’t offer the same “moonshot” capabilities promised for the Volt. Apple likes its moonshots, whether we are talking about the Lisa or the iPhone. There’s something to be said for coming up with the proverbial “paradigm shift”.

GM likes its moonshots, too; the X-cars, the Saturn project, and the Volt were all meant to be more than merely competitive. The problem is that moonshots are a privilege, not a right. Apple “earned” the Lisa by creating the Apple ][, perhaps the most important personal computer of the Seventies, and earning the money and goodwill that came along with it. GM hasn’t earned much lately.

Another issue with “moonshots”; if you take too long, someone else gets to the moon first. The endless delays associated with the Volt allowed Nissan’s less ambitious Leaf to arrive in the marketplace at the same time and effectively whip its ass; meanwhile, a third generation of Prius offers dramatically better efficiency off the battery than the bulky Volt does.

Worst of all, moonshots tend to grow a bit stale. The Saturn SL, which arrived on the market watered-down past the point of recognition, sat through a long lifecycle and an indifferent refresh before disappearing. Honda released three new Civics during that same time, each an incremental improvement over its predecessor. Constant improvement isn’t as sexy as loading up a spacecraft, but it pays real dividends.

If GM really wants to be like Apple, they will do what Apple did to extricate itself from the Lisa fiasco. First, all resources were diverted to other, less ambitious but more effective projects. In this case, one could argue that a Cruze hatchback hybrid which matches the Prius for efficiency and beats it on price and/or interior appointments would be a good way to start. Next, the difficult decision was taken to fold Lisa in with the successful stuff. Lisa received major price cuts, became “Macintosh XL”, and sold five or six times as much volume as the original Lisa as a result. The Volt may need to be brought back in line with other, more successful hybrids, and the price needs to drop regardless of the consequences.

After the “Macintosh XL” variant was obsolete, Apple simply walked away from Lisa. GM’s pretty good at walking away from nameplates, particularly after the bugs are worked out, (*cough* FIERO *cough) so it’s safe to assume not too much encouragement will be necessary here. Dump the Volt, get a world-class Cruze Hybrid out on the streets, sell the rest of the volume at a discount, and call it an expensive lesson learned at taxpayer expense.

Apple went on to have a pretty good ten years with the Macintosh, although by 1994 or so the bloom was off the fruit, so to speak, and it took a major upheaval in both product and organization to fix the wagon. Ironically, what saved Apple in 1998 — the arrival of Jobs and his crazy ideas — were what almost killed the company fifteen years prior. That’s the scariest lesson GM could learn from Apple: that sometimes you can’t learn anything from history, or competitive comparisons, at all.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Speedemon Speedemon on Aug 25, 2011

    I’m not a big fan of GM or government hand outs but I really do not understand why articles like this are so prevalent. There is so much misinformation being spread, it's just plain irresponsible. We have driven our Leaf over 4,500 miles for less than $100 of electricity (2.2 cents a mile), that’s like getting a 90% discount at the pump! That kind of savings stands to transform our economy and blows away any hybrid in savings over the life of the car. We have discovered something we didn’t expect, that a 100 mile range is more than adequate for the majority of our metro driving, which is what the Leaf is designed for. Because the Leaf does not have a gas generator like the Volt, it currently is limited to metro driving (until the DC quick charging network is in place). We use the Leaf for about 80-90% of our driving and rely on a our gas car for the long distance trips, and plugging it in takes seconds so “filling up” more often is not a big deal at all. If we were going to be limited to one car, we would have seriously considered the Volt. It’s got a EV range of 40 miles, which turns out to be the magic number for most Americans daily driving needs. I suspect the majority of Volt owners would hardly ever buy gas. We are saving roughly $2K a year driving the Leaf and I would expect the typical Volt owner would see the same savings… that’s about $30K in savings over the life of a typical gas car, assuming gas doesn’t get more expensive, which it will. The Volt is designed to fill a different niche than the Leaf. It’s designed ideally for those who need to rely on one car for both metro driving and occasional long distance travel. I do believe that once it’s out on the roads in substantial numbers a lot of very different responses will come in to articles like this one. Given the level of subsidy to Big oil, I have no problem with the short term measly tax credit going to EV’s compared to the 50 billion a year of tax dollars going to military operations that secure our oil interests. This technology is advancing quickly with the first 300 mile range luxury EV coming out next year and the cost per kW of new breeds of li-ion battereis is rapidly coming down, not to mention these vehicles can outperform the average gas car in terms of pick up, making them fun to drive. Freedom from foreign oil is possible with this technology, and without hardly increasing our electricity production due to the fact that every night utility companies throw out enough excess electricity to meet the vast majority of consumption that EV’s will need for many years to come. Capturing the vast amount of wasted electricity at night will make our grid much more efficient, the missing link to a truly smart grid. I look forward to the day when the $1.2 billion that is spent on foreign oil and is going to middle eastern regimes who do not mean us well, is kept right here within our country. You EV haters can keep plugging your ears and ranting and raving, but the time for change is now and the sooner you come on board the less foolish you will seem once people catch on to "The Truth About Electric Cars".

  • Ronin The very asking of the question "Are Plug-In Hybrids the Future?" is an interesting one. Because just 2 or 3 years ago we'd be asking- no, asserting- that E cars are the future. We're no longer asking that question.
  • Peter Benn There apparently were some K-code 4-dr sedan Fairlanes. Collectible Automobile Apr 2024 has found a '63 500 with HD 3/spd.
  • Mia Hey there!I recently stumbled upon the Crack Eraser DIY Windshield Repair Kit (check it out here: https://crackeraser.com/collections/diy-windshield-repair-kits) and decided to give it a shot on a small chip in my windshield. I have to say, it worked like a charm! Super easy to use, and it saved me a trip to the professionals. If you're dealing with a similar issue, this kit is definitely worth considering. 😊
  • Rust-MyEnemy Whoa, what the hell is wrong with Jalop1991 and his condescension? It's as if he's employed by Big Plug-In or something."I've seen plenty of your types on the forums....."Dunno what that means, but I'm not dead keen on being regarded as "A type" by a complete stranger"" I'm guessing you've never actually calculated by hand the miles you've driven against the quantity of gas used--which is your actual miles per gallon."Guess again. Why the hell would you even say that? Yes, I worked it out. Fill-to-fill, based on gas station receipts. And it showed me that a Vauxhall Astra PHEV, starting out with a fully charged PHEV battery, in Hybrid mode, on my long (234-mile) daily motorway daily commute, never, over several months, ever matched or beat the economy of the regular hybrid Honda Civic that I ran for a similar amount of time (circa 5000 miles)."You don't use gasoline at all for 30-40 miles as you use exclusively battery power, then your vehicle is a pure hybrid. Over 234 miles, you will have used whatever gas the engine used for 200 of those miles."At least you're right on that. In hybrid mode, though, the Astra was using battery power when it wasn't at all appropriate. The petrol engine very rarely chimed in when battery power was on tap, and as a result, the EV-mode range quickly disappeared. The regular hybrid Civic, though, deployed its very small electric reserves (which are used up quickly but restore themselves promptly), much more wisely. Such as when on a trailing throttle or on a downward grade, or when in stop-start traffic. As a result, at the end of my 234 miles, the Civic had used less gas than the Astra. Moreover, I hadn't had to pay for the electricity in its battery.I look forward to you arguing that what actually happened isn't what actually happened, but I was there and you were not."Regardless, that you don't understand it appears not to have stopped you from pontificating on it. Please, do us all a favor--don't vote."You really are quite unpleasant, aren't you. But thanks for the advice.
  • Tassos Jong-iL Electric vehicles are mandated by 2020 in One Korea. We are ahead of the time.
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