Fighter jet–flying, horsepower-hungry Bob Lutz believes global warming is “a crock of shit,” yet GM’s vice-chairman is the driving force behind the Chevy Volt, an
innovative electric car that calls to mind the company’s glory days of engineering ingenuity. And it still might not be enough to save GM.
By the time a production version of the Toyota Prius arrived in the U.S. in 2000, it was already hailed as the future of personal transportation, and a Japanese company that was once seen as an interloper earned the American public’s adulation. GM’s board of directors hated every second of it. “The mood in the auto press was all Toyota, Toyota, Toyota,” says Lutz. “Toyota saves the planet! Only Toyota does intelligent things! Old Rust Belt America is too dumb to think of anything!” Eventually Lutz told the board, “The only way this will stop is if we send a strong technological statement.” How about letting him build an electric concept car for the 2007 Detroit auto show? He got the nod and set about working on the Volt.
That electric enthusiasm from Lutz was a 180 from his stance less than a decade earlier. He’s the first to admit he had never paid much attention to electric cars. Then he found himself at a battery company. “At the time I joined Exide, a battery to me was a prismatic black lump that started a car,” Lutz says. “I thought it would be hard to get enthusiastic. But like most things, the more you get into it, the more fascinating it is: different types, technologies, techniques.”
Then he arrived at GM and found that pushing an electric vehicle was an uphill affair. “The official view was ‘We tried electric cars, they didn’t work,’” he says. The General’s attempt is chronicled in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which recounts the life and death of the EV1, an electric roadster made by GM from 1996 to 1999. The company built 1,117 of them and leased them in California and Arizona, only to pry the much-loved cars back from their owners seven years later and crush most into oblivion. GM argues that demand for electric cars was too low and production costs too high. “The EV1 was a disaster financially, and it turned out to be a PR disaster,” says Lutz. “The movie is still out there doing damage.”
The Volt is an attempt at atonement, and a radical departure in the design of electric cars. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius switch from a battery to a gas engine depending on driving conditions, and get 40-plus miles per gallon. All-electric cars, like the $100,000 Tesla Roadster sports car, drive on pure battery power but need to spend at least a few hours with an electrical outlet to re-up.
The Volt strives for the best of both worlds. It will use only battery power for the first 40 or so miles. When the cells are nearly depleted, a small gas engine kicks in that indirectly recharges the batteries or powers the electric motor, keeping the car running for another 200–300 miles. GM sees the Volt mainly as a zero-gasoline overnight plug-in commuter car without the “range anxiety” inherent in all-electric vehicles.
The Volt was the darling of the auto show, and the board quickly green-lit a production version. Chris Paine, the director of Who Killed the Electric Car?, will be telling the Volt’s development story with his next documentary. “I like Bob’s candor and the Volt concept,” he says, “but the proof for the car companies will come when anyone can actually buy plug-in cars in showrooms.”