Electro-Shock Therapy

With the Chevy Volt, General Motors—battered, struggling for profitability, fed up with being eclipsed by Toyota and the Prius—is out to reinvent the automobile, and itself.
Mr. Environment? Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who pushed hard for the Volt, with part of his personal fleet

‘Batteries on the Brain’

After a storied career at GM, BMW, Ford, and Chrysler, Lutz returned to GM in 2001, as vice chairman, to reinvigorate its droopy product line. He is not the first person you might expect to bend GM’s will toward politically correct propulsion. For one thing, he is not what you would call green. A tall, gravel-voiced former Marine pilot in his 70s, he has a carbon footprint approximately the size of Delaware, thanks to his 16 classic cars and eight motorcycles and two helicopters and two military-surplus fighter jets (which he flies). He relishes his cigar-chomping, fast-driving image, and scoffs at any notion that he has converted to environmentalism. A few months ago, while GM was busy trying to improve its environmental image, he couldn’t stop himself from telling reporters that global warming is a “total crock of shit.”

But Lutz is also, as he has described himself, “a walking contradiction.” He is trilingual (English, French, and German), the sophisticated product of an elite upbringing in both Switzerland and America, and he spent years successfully working in Europe, where gas is expensive and cars are small. Like many of GM’s top executives nowadays, he is convinced that dependence on a single, increasingly problematic fuel, gasoline, has become the auto industry’s Achilles’ heel. Plug-in cars run on as many different fuels as the electricity plants that charge them: coal, methane, nuclear, hydro, and wind, and potentially solar, biofuels, and garbage—but almost never Saudi or Venezuelan oil. This suits Lutz, a hawk on energy security. “The one thing I care about is getting off imported oil,” he told me in December, over dinner in Detroit. And, as it happens, his last stop before GM was the chairmanship of Exide, a battery company. There, he became fascinated with electric drive.

When he returned, Lutz had, as a GM engineer recalls, “batteries on the brain.” He nagged and he nagged, but the company pushed back. The EV1 had been a commercial flop and a public-relations fiasco, and no one wanted to go back down that road. Then, in late 2005, Lutz got wind that a Silicon Valley start-up, Tesla Motors, was moving toward production of a high-performance electric roadster. (It’s available this year, if you have $100,000.) At that point, Lutz “just lost it,” as he puts it. He refused to accept that a small start-up company could build and sell an electric car but mighty GM couldn’t. In early 2006, he summoned Jon Lauckner and told him to dream up an electric concept car for the 2007 Detroit auto show, a year away. The car had to be more than just interesting, he said. It had to be remarkable: a game-changer.

‘Risk Is My Friend’

Lauckner, 50, is vice president of global program management, which puts him in charge of moving vehicles through GM’s new-product pipeline. His father and grandfather worked for GM. Although he has a Stanford management degree, Lauckner is an engineer to the core. Ask him why he is so sure the Volt is doable, and he is likely to say, “I work in power train!” He sees the Volt as an engineering problem that, with enough determination, can be broken down and solved. He also thinks engineers do their best work when asked to stretch, and the further the better. “Risk is my friend,” he once told me. “I like risk. You either go big or go home.”

In February 2006, Lauckner pulled together a brainstorming team that included, unusually, a public-relations man, Chris Preuss. Then just turning 40, Preuss was a Chrysler veteran who had come to GM in the late 1990s and discovered a depressingly hidebound organization. Things had improved since then, but not enough for Preuss. While Lutz was agitating for electric drive, Preuss had been arguing that GM needed a breakthrough product in the mold of the iPod. “Apple Computer was almost on its last breath,” Preuss says. “Once the iPod hit, all the other things they had suddenly looked relevant again.”

That March, the group laid its conclusions before Rick Wagoner and the rest of the top leadership. Preuss and Larry Burns, who runs the company’s research operations and is regarded in the industry as something of a visionary, did not pull punches. GM had to show a real change of mind on the environment and sustainability or remain Toyota’s doormat. It had to lead on plug-ins or get left behind in yet another new market. It had to restore credibility damaged by the mishandling of the EV1, the abdication on hybrids, and the repeated failure to deliver on promises. It needed not just one more in a long series of research programs and concept cars but a real-world product, one ambitious enough to impress even the cynics.

The group proposed a plug-in that would drive at least 10 miles on a charge. It would be a cool, stylish, high-tech car, marketed to trendsetters. They called it the iCar.

The senior leadership green-lighted the project. Burns left the meeting feeling euphoric.

Lauckner’s engineers, meanwhile, were struggling with the battery problem. With anything like an affordable battery, an all-electric car would lack the range consumers expect. But a Prius-style hybrid, however well executed, would amount to a mere me-too. The solution turned up in the form of a rediscovery. In the early 1990s, engineers testing the EV1 had been vexed by its limited range. After 60 miles or so on the test track, they would have to wait hours for the car to recharge. So they rigged up a motorcycle engine, connected it to a generator, and connected that to the battery. Now the car recharged itself while driving. Some of the engineers—among them, Andrew Farah—thought this was a nifty arrangement and pressed to develop it. A few years later, GM put an onboard recharger in an EV1 show car.

And that was as far as the idea got. It elicited zero interest, because in the 1990s, policy makers and car companies were focused on zero emissions—that is, on cars that burn no gas at all. By 2006, however, all of that had changed. Thanks to the Prius, the market was brisk for hybrids, and the public seemed receptive to a plug-in car; but Toyota and Honda were pooh-poohing plug-in technology as unready for prime time. GM’s brainstormers thought they saw a gap in the Japanese line and relished the thought of doing to Toyota what Toyota had done to them. After a sometimes heated debate, they decided the iCar would be the lineal descendant of that once-orphaned test car.

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Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent.

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