There's just one problem: The Volt may never get built.
Sharon Terlep - Detroit News - Mar. 23, 2007
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz introduces the Chevrolet Volt concept at Detroit's North American International Auto Show. The Volt has attracted much attention since its unveiling in January.
General Motors Corp. seized the world's attention in January when it unveiled plans to build the Chevy Volt -- a plug-in hybrid car touted not so much as a mode of transportation but as part of a solution to the nation's energy crisis.
The Volt grabbed headlines, lit up online chat boards and dominated the buzz at the auto show in Detroit.
There's just one problem: The Volt may never get built.
Production depends on advances in battery technology that could be years away. The uncertainty led to intense debate within GM over whether it was wise to show the Volt in Detroit. And now that the world's waiting for GM to deliver what could be the biggest environmental breakthrough so far this century, company officials are actively trying to temper expectations.
The enormity of GM's challenge was evident last week when it called journalists to a backgrounder to explain the technological hurdles facing the Volt project -- and reiterate that it can't guarantee the futuristic car will ever hit the road.
"The pressure is intense," Nick Zielinski, the Volt's chief engineer, said at the event, which attracted more than 100 reporters. "We came out with this idea" and now people are saying, 'OK, where is this car. We want it now.'
The auto industry has disappointed before when it comes to green technology.
DaimlerChrysler AG promised a production fuel-cell vehicle by 2004, but couldn't deliver despite spending $1 billion on the technology. And little came of a $1.5 billion taxpayer-funded effort, called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, to build an 80-miles-per-gallon car. Last year, Ford Motor Co. took an image beating when it backed away from a pledge to put 250,000 hybrids on the road by 2010.
Still, GM's Volt gamble could pay off big for an automaker trying to transform its behind-the-times image. A vehicle loaded with cutting-edge green technology would position GM as an environmental leader and help it compete against foreign rivals that dominate the growing market for Earth-friendly cars and trucks.
The concept Volt is designed with an electric drivetrain and an internal combustion engine that recharges the vehicle's batteries while on the road.
While the range of plug-in cars has typically been no more than 20 to 30 miles on battery power alone, the Volt would have a range of 40 miles, GM says, and drivers wouldn't have to stop every time it needs a charge.
There's just one obstacle.
"All of this is irrelevant until they get a battery pack invented," said Joseph Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J. "For a long time, they were out there knocking the idea of a plug-in hybrid. Now they're on board, but, theoretically, GM is still learning."
Remember GM's EV1?
The Volt isn't GM's first foray into electric cars. In the 1990s, the automaker spent $1 billion on its EV1 electric car program, which ended when GM demanded the return of its leased vehicles. The decision drew the ire of environmental groups and EV1 drivers and spawned the unflattering "Who Killed the Electric Car?" documentary.
GM chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner has called killing the EV1 his biggest mistake. For evidence he was right look no further than Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. The maker of the popular Prius hybrid has capitalized on its green image just as more Americans are embracing environmentalism.
With the Volt, GM has a shot at redemption.
"It's a breakthrough of immense magnitude -- potentially one of the two or three most significant game changers that we've seen in a long time," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
When the time came to unveil plans for the Volt, GM wanted to make a bold statement.
Wagoner began dropping hints about GM's plans in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, where he listed developing alternative energy sources as one of GM's top priorities. When it debuted in January in Detroit, the Volt generated glowing praise for its striking appearance and the technology behind it.
Shortly after the show, GM launched a "Vote for Volt" Web site, which asks visitors if they think GM should build the Volt and if they would consider buying one. Nearly 440,000 people had cast votes as of Thursday.
With all the attention, though, has come intense and sometimes scathing scrutiny.
Some dismiss the move as a publicity stunt by a company struggling to stay relevant. Others question whether GM was being realistic in pinning its hopes on the uncertain science of battery technology. Still others say GM's Asian rivals are likely to beat it to the punch.
"GM has more of a recent history of failure than of being at the cutting edge," said Bruce Vanden Bergh, a Michigan State University advertising professor.
GM faces a credibility challenge with the American public, Vanden Bergh said.
If the Volt flops, it could do irreparable damage to the company's reputation.
"They'd better make it work," he said, "or they're going to look stupid."
Rival questions strategy
At least one GM rival questions the automaker's strategy.
Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrids, said while it is important to showcase innovative research, there is little value in committing to a technology that still generates more questions than it answers and may not even be commercially viable.
That's why Ford's plug-in hybrid was displayed in a corner of its Detroit auto show pavilion, rather than center stage, where GM showcased the Volt.
"If we say we're going to do something," she said. "You're going to see it."
Even GM insiders debated the wisdom of rolling out the Volt without the battery technology needed to power it and some early concerns have been realized. On Capitol Hill, for example, there is a general lack of understanding about how a concept vehicle becomes a production model, Zielinski said. As a result, GM's credibility is in question in some corners.
To deal with skeptics, GM has made public an unprecedented amount of information about a vehicle still in development.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said this week that GM's strategy is to let people know about any problems early so they don't feel duped should the Volt not succeed, a risk he estimates to be about 10 percent.
"Having said that," he wrote in an e-mail, "I am growingly convinced that we will pull it off."
No matter what GM's strategy, the automaker is bound to take heat, said Cole of the Center for Automotive Research.
"There are a lot of anti-GM skeptics," he said. "It's the penalty that comes with being No. 1."