I want GM to come roaring back against Toyota and I suspect many of you do, too. After all, even in a weakened state, GM remains an icon in American industry. Winning accolades at the Detroit Auto Show for GM’s new Malibu and Silverado was gratifying except that the vehicles were more of the same – better existing models, but nothing radical. One review in the past month bemoaned the fact that three of four engine options for GM’s Silverado are thirsty V-8s resulting in the following headline: “Right Silverado, Wrong Time?” The new Silverado is a great truck, but as soon as gas tips $3 a gallon again, sales will wither.
So the Chevy Volt made it seem like GM was getting finally its act together in a gasoline shaky world. My reaction to the Volt was positive and I expressed those sentiments in my “If it ain’t broke” blog.
But a spiffy entry at an auto show doesn’t alter the hard choices GM must make after years of ignoring market reality. As best we can tell, the Chevy Volt is at least three years away from production and probably longer. That’s what so frustrating – GM should have started moving the Volt into production five years ago and even then, it would have followed the launch of the Prius by two years. The fact is, we don’t know if GM will – or can- move the Volt into production. So we’re left with the unsatisfying idea of a concept car (the polite term) and the hope that the Concept Chevy Volt (GM’s official name) is further than along than we know (all the Volt’s publicity overshadowed what GM is doing with fuel cells).
GM’s history with electrics has been scarred by the cancelled EV1 electric car, which GM claimed in 2003 could never be profitable. A movie “Who killed the Electric Car” blames the cancellation on big oil among other culprits. A picture of crushed EV1s sadly depicts the fully electric car’s fate. I won’t belabor the EV1 given its coverage of late with the emergence of the Volt, but the idea that a conspiracy did in the EV1 and movie about it is not without precedent at GM.
In 1988, an animated movie named “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” loosely recalls an alleged conspiracy alleging GM in cahoots with Firestone and Standard Oil tried to sabotage the extensive Los Angeles streetcar system so it could sell more buses. The trio formedNational City Lines to buy up mostly failing streetcar lines across the nation between 1936-50 (most of which were money losers) and replace them with GM buses. The conspiracy case went before the Supreme Court in 1949 and was brought before a Senate subcommittee in 1974. GM never got much more than a wrist slap.
But 20/20 hindsight tells us GM had been on the wrong side of environmental and energy conservation issues for decades. Buying up streetcar lines to kill them is anticompetitive and illegal. And now, of course, LA, long choked with traffic and smog, is building out new rail systems like most American cities.
This older conspiracy if you believe it lends insight into why GM trailed instead leading the way to energy efficient vehicles. The company has been seduced for years by its popular and highly-profitable gas-guzzling trucks for years. I have a 1997 Silverado pickup when one a reported one out of every four vehicles sold domestically was a truck. And trucks led in sales in 23 out of 50 states a decade ago. The market then, yes. The future market, no.
Let’s hope the Volt is not another false start or the EV2. It’s worrisome that GM bragged from its survey that 99% of 413,000 responding to a leading online survey said they wanted GM to build the car and that they would consider buying one. DN editors Chuck Murray and Doug Smock do a great job looking under the hood and into the novel materials used in the Volt. GM's promising 2-mode hybrid debuts later this year in the Saturn Vue Green Line SUV.
Maybe, GM is finally waking up to global warming and declining oil reserves. For what it’s worth, searching “global warming” at GM.com yielded 98 hits where as Toyota.com has about a third of that. Am I dreaming?
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