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.
‘There Is No Next Week’

The news was just as good in the Volt’s design studio, a repurposed auditorium. Designers sat in cubicles on the stage, an aptly theatrical touch for so publicity-conscious a car. A mural proclaimed the program’s goals, one of which was “Radically Shifts GM’s Public Perceptions.” On the main floor was a full-size model of the car, hidden under a blue tarp. As a rule, car companies go to great lengths to hide their developmental designs, and so I was surprised when my handler ordered the model disrobed: even by Volt standards, this was exceptional access. The model looked rounder and smoother than the aggressively sporty show car, and for good reason: to squeeze 40 miles out of its battery, the Volt will need to be the most aerodynamically efficient car GM has ever built.

Here, as in the battery lab, work was proceeding rapidly. The design, though still evolving, was already 98 percent there, Bob Boniface, the Volt’s design director, told me. “We’ve taken more than half a year out of the schedule,” he said. Ordinarily, if you had a problem with a taillight, you might schedule a meeting for the next week. “With this, there is no next week.”

Early on, word had come down from Bob Lutz and Jon Lauckner that standard procedure was suspended where the Volt was concerned. “You guys are not going to be held to the normal GM bureaucracy,” Lutz recalls saying. “You guys spend money when you need to spend it. You have a problem, call us on the phone.” Engineers, designers, and executives were told to trust their instincts and make decisions on the spot. If a larger issue crops up, it is taken to a special Volt steering committee, and Lutz, Lauckner, and the key company vice presidents settle it before leaving the room.

“Whenever I have a problem, it is resolved within days,” Frank Weber, who manages the Volt project, told me. “Within days! One call, and things happen immediately.” Weber, a 41-year-old German import from GM’s Opel division in Europe, is precise, organized, unflappable, as if German-engineered himself. One morning, when the steering group heard that the battery was running behind schedule, a senior production executive said to Weber, “Tell us what you need.” By early that afternoon, the two of them were enlisting more engineers.

‘Suddenly, Playtime Is Over’

At the end of February, when I returned to the technical center, the picture looked different. December’s ebullience had given way to a sense of strain that was evident even to a tourist. “We currently are at the limit of our stretch,” one senior battery engineer told me. He was just back from a week’s skiing in Colorado, where he had sought escape, but where for three nights the battery had intruded on his dreams. “Three nights, and I could only think about that battery!”

The Volt had moved from the late stages of conception to the early stages of execution. The personnel count had more than doubled, to 500 or so. They were now out of the sunny foothills and beginning the craggy ascent. Unpleasant surprises and resource limitations and aggressive deadlines and the laws of physics were biting. “Suddenly,” Weber told me, “playtime is over.”

In the battery lab, I found Lance Turner visibly exhausted. As we talked in a cluttered office, where he sat in front of a blackboard covered with scribbled graphs and equations as if out of a mad-scientist cartoon, he kept removing his glasses to massage his eyes. When I asked if he was having any fun, perhaps not the most delicate of questions, he said, “There’s a fair amount of camaraderie in the misery of being tired.” Had he had a vacation? He couldn’t remember just then. “I’m going to take one,” he said, not all that convincingly.

And how was the project going? “I’d had nothing but phenomenal testing experiences last time you were here,” he replied. “This time I’m more humbled.” He led me into a temperature-controlled chamber, where one of the batteries was hooked up to a tangle of tubes filled with clear orange fluid. It looked like an intensive-care patient. The cooling system was being tested. The engineers had expected this to be a challenge, and it was. The system was leaking both fluid and electricity, which meant it could not yet be installed in a test car. Nor was the competing battery robust enough to drive around. Originally expected by Easter, test cars, the crucial proof, would not be on the road before May.

“We’re counting on home runs every single time, and quite frankly, we’re hitting doubles right now,” Turner said, as I watched diodes on the battery’s control circuits flash green. It seemed, he added wearily, that there were not enough hours in the day.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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