At Witz' End: GM EV1 - The Real Story, Q&A
Why is it so important to some to cast GM as a villain? To believe that the only reason we don't have affordable, practical pure-electric vehicles today is that GM doesn't want us to?
Why is it so difficult to believe that General Motors is not the same sadly mismanaged company it was in the 1970s and '80s? That it's a completely different enterprise run by completely different leaders with completely different values and priorities?
Why so difficult to accept that if GM – or anyone else – could make a buck building and selling the EVs of your dreams, they would be thrilled to do so? And will the minute they can?
As GM (and others) have learned from past, very expensive failed attempts, volume road-worthy EVs require a huge financial investment, and risk. But whoever gets there first with practical, affordable ones will make a killing. Why would any automaker not want to?
And why accuse me of lying or spinning, as some will, for explaining and defending – based on my knowledge and experience – GM, Ford, Chrysler, anyone else who deserves it?
I worked for GM two different times, the first (1965-'73) when it led the global industry and was as proud and arrogant as the day was long. The second (1987-'02) when it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, learned humility and appointed different kinds of leaders to fix it. In between, as a widely published auto writer, I was as harsh a critic as anyone. I hammered GM's leadership and its products relentlessly, because both were shamefully bad.
But that began to change when Bob Stempel replaced Roger Smith as CEO in 1989 and gained momentum in 1992 when new CEO Jack Smith (no relation to Roger) effectively started to right the still-sinking ship. It's been rough and rocky sailing since, but – contrary to what many believe – GM leadership under current CEO Rick Wagoner has been outstanding.
Like other U.S. makers, they still can't make a living in North America due to high costs, our business-unfriendly government and other conditions beyond their control. But there have been no bad new GM products this decade, and most are world-class competitive, or better. As an employee, I had no great love for GM. As a journalist (again), I'm professionally neutral and objective. But as a former insider, I gained perspective on GM and the industry as a whole that no one who hasn't been there could understand. Also enormous appreciation for the smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working individuals who toil there 10-14 hours every day.
That said, I've responded to some of your questions about my previous columns after the jump.
Note: questions have been edited for space. To read the full questions and see the discussion threads they were a part of, click on the questioner's name.
What I cannot fathom is how all three auto manufacturers fell into the big-car trap. This happened before in the 1970s - fuel prices went up and U.S. automakers were left with obsolete product lines. – Steve.
So in 2003, U.S. automakers should have seen $4.00 gas coming in exactly five years and shifted their powertrain and vehicle production, and the entire supply chain that feeds it, from highly profitable large vehicles that most Americans wanted to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles that at the time almost no one wanted and could not be built and sold at a profit?
Come on, Steve, they're not making sandwiches. They can't shift production overnight to match fluctuating demand. The costs are in billions and the lead times measured in years. How many U.S. car owners saw it coming and downsized their vehicles just before it did? Everyone knew this would happen, but no one knew exactly when. U.S. makers have been planning and working for years toward migrating their production from larger to smaller vehicles, due to both changing customer demand and accelerating CAFE requirements. But $4 gas has arrived at least a couple years too soon for them. The new, more fuel-efficient smaller vehicles and engines that Americans suddenly want have been designed, developed, planned and programmed to arrive in volume beginning in 2010. No matter how much we want them, they can't suddenly be moved ahead by more than a few months, at best.
So this year and the next will be very tough for our domestic industry. And the challenge to make a living on U.S.-built small cars will be huge. They don't cost less to engineer and build than larger ones, but Americans have never been willing to pay much for them.
Do I need to point out that off-shore makers enjoy much lower business and production costs, undying support of their governments (and ours) and fleets of products that are already small and fuel efficient due to decades of high fuel taxes and prices in their home markets?
You insist that everything possible was done to reduce costs to make EV1 a financial success. Then why did it share almost nothing in common with any other GM vehicles? To make a new, low volume vehicle is to essentially guarantee that it won't be profitable. And then GM used that lack of profitability as its main argument to kill the EV1. - meme
Ah, yes, it's so easy to criticize from the outside. And, by the way, within our weight and cost requirements, we did use as many off-the shelf components as we could, mostly minor things like the door handles, the premium radio and the steering column control stalks. But, as I stated, the vehicle had to be, and was, the most efficient ever built to get even 50-70 miles of range out of the ½-gallon of gas-equivalent energy in our 1,175-lb. PbA battery pack. EV conversions of conventional vehicles at the time were good for maybe half that. Do you really think a cheaper, heavier 30-40-mile EV would have sold better? No one else's has.
Yes, the car was expensive, and the battery pack even more so...about $25,000 initially. But that's all the energy we had, so every ounce of weight, every count of drag, was critically important. The plan was for the program (not that first car) to earn profitability over time as battery capability increased to where we could deliver reasonable range from more conventional, practical and affordable vehicles, and as other automakers purchased our EV system. As you know, none of that happened because the necessary battery technology didn't arrive.
The issue wasn't profitability but lack of consumer acceptance and lack of progress on battery invention and development. When you can move only 800 (200 fewer than you have already built) at a heavily subsidized lease price of $299/month in five EV-friendly western cities over a three-year period, you know it's just not ready. BTW, the Volt is based on GM's next-generation compact platform and does not need hyper-efficiency due to its range extender.
Don't worry, there will be more Q&A next time.
Note: Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 20 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, he has been a regular contributor to a wide variety of national magazines including Playboy, The Robb Report, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently a Contributing Editor or Contributing Writer for AutoMedia.com, Kelley Blue Book, Automobilemag.com and TheCarConnection.com, Design Editor for Automotive Traveler and a North American Car and Truck of the Year Juror.
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