• Jan 19th 2011 at 2:51PM
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Chevrolet Volt – Click above for high-res image gallery

General Motors North America president Mark Reuss looked tired on the first morning of Detroit's North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) press days. His face showed the weight of heavy responsibilities as president of post-bankruptcy General Motors' U.S. operations. During a small group press conference, he also showed little tolerance for dumb questions.

Q: How important is Chevy Volt to GM?
A: It's very important in the market and to our customers, and it's great for everyone who worked on it. But it's not the only thing that's important. In this business it's, "What have you done for me today?" It's a long-lead business that can flip bad, and quickly. You take what you know today and try to project where customers are going to be, then decide how you're going to win. We cannot return to some of the things we did in the past, period.

From a product standpoint, the soul of the company has to be things like the Volt – high desirability, technical leadership, breakthrough technology in some cases. I don't want to do things that are "competitive" any more, in product or in service. We're going to do it best, or we're not going to do it.

(This post continues after the jump.)

Q: Given Volt's multiple Car of the Year awards, how do you balance journalist kudos vs. market realities?
A: We have a mix of people who worked on the Volt who are extremely talented, from power electronics and calibration, to assembly, to creating a battery pack that will be built in Michigan. When you do something like that and get some validation from the motoring press, that's a good thing.

GM before bankruptcy was a structural cost-based company with a lot of structural cost. Now we have worked extremely hard on reducing structural cost and have become a revenue-based company. When you do that, a whole different mindset begins to happen in the company. We've still got a lot of work to do, but people can see and taste success with something like the Volt, which no one else has, that addresses a whole different set of customer needs.

Q: Where will Volt technology go next?
A: I would say to take that technology and get the maximum out of it. You don't know what you don't know when you design it the first time. Now we can begin to take a lot more mass and money out of it and create the next hyper-efficient Voltec drivetrain. When you do that, mass begets mass, and the mass of the battery pack and what you're asking it to do become less. You get efficiencies out of both the car and the battery without asking for a complete breakthrough in battery technology. That's the technical answer.

If you're asking on a portfolio basis, we want to take this technology and do other things with it, so we're looking at how and where to do that."

Q: Given the painfully slow production ramp-up of Volt, what is preventing GM from building more of them sooner?
A: We're building it at a very low rate to begin with, and we're doing that on purpose. When you do something like this that's breakthrough, quality is extremely important. We do not want to risk screwing it up. One technical reason – there are over 260 cells in that battery pack, and lithium-ion is not something to be taken lightly when you bring it to production. We want the production process and the stability of that to be perfect, and we are going to be perfect with it. Chasing volume would be irresponsible.

Q: What if gas goes back to $4-5 a gallon?
A: Hopefully, we're in a better position than most. If you look at what we're introducing today [including the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact and the 37-mpg Buick LaCrosse eAssist], we have some great stories here. But I think it's more helpful to look at what our electrification strategy needs to be, which you'll see across the industry. You'll see electric cars as well as the eAssist energy storage approach with a battery and a 4-cylinder engine and a little electric motor that does something between full-blown hybrids and a Volt. You'll see different cost scenarios of electrification and energy storage that produce very high fuel economy.

I don't think there will be a digital change when gas prices go up. There will be all sorts of things, and GM will be very well prepared. In reality, regulation will dictate what we do. We'll have to plan our portfolio to be there from greenhouse gas and fuel economy standpoints.

2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist
2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist – Click above for high-res image gallery

Q: There seems to be a gap opening up between CAFE standards and what people are asking for in the marketplace. How does General Motors play that?
A: We'll do it all, but not all of it all the time for every brand. We'll do a mix of things that will offer the customer choices. We won't put eAssist on every LaCrosse, for example, but if we need to go up on eAssist because gas is at $4 or $5, we can do that.

Q: How much of what you're doing in small cars and electrification is being driven by regulation against market demand?
A: I don't think there's that big a gap between the regulatory direction and the customer. If you have gas prices increasing, with the economy in the state it's been in and people either out of work or worried about keeping their jobs, that puts pressure on them to buy a new car because its operating costs are much lower."

We'll have people who won't buy the first Volt but may buy or lease the second generation because it costs just $1.50 a day to run. You'll see people go to a mild hybrid system such as eAssist, with energy storage paired with a gas engine, to increase their fuel economy without downsizing the package. We'll have to pick these blends and the right places to do them, and we'll be prepared for people to simply downsize.

Q: How will GM meet not just the CAFE numbers on the books today through 2016 but potentially the insanely high numbers being talked about beyond that, and keep vehicles affordable?
A: I would have to show you our complete product and technology plan, which I can't do. But we will comply, and we'll be profitable doing it.

Great positive attitude. But we'll believe that one when we see it.

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      "If you have gas prices increasing, with the economy in the state it's been in and people either out of work or worried about keeping their jobs, that puts pressure on them to buy a new car because its operating costs are much lower."

      Wrong. I can't imagine an economic scenario in which buying a new electric car is cheaper than operating a working gasoline car (assuming it is in decent shape). Now, if the car needs to be replaced then an electric car *might* make sense but replacing a car for the sole purpose of getting better fuel economy will never make financial sense.
      • 4 Years Ago
      These are some of the most frank, honest statements i have ever heard from GM.
      Although the attitude of refusing to be ahead of the curve and doing only what regulations demands that they do is not new.

      Not inspiring, still maddening, but an improvement over Bob "global warming is a crock of **** / efficient engines will add $5000 to the cost of each car" Luts.

        • 4 Years Ago
        No they're not preparing, they're complying with new CAFE regulations.
        Halo green cars like the Focus electric, Leaf, and the Volt exist mainly to help boost the CAFE ratings to a point where the manufacturer can save money on engineering better, more efficient motors.

        But i have a feeling that Ford will be exceeding CAFE soon; and they have a lineup of ecoboost motors that they can drop in any car, i think that's really smart of them.

        Hyundai has been putting v6's on the chopping block and downsizing their i4's by using pretty much every engine technology available.

        These are the only two companies i can think of that are going a step above complying. non-hybrid/non-EV cars count too.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I have no idea what you guys are talking about.

        Will GM be hurt by higher gas prices? Heck yes.

        But all car companies will.

        How is already prepping for higher prices already mean that what the companies are doing will be knee jerk and late?

        GM offers a lot of high mpg vehicles already. Once Ford gets the Focus in, they'll have a broad lineup of them too.

        Hybrids? Although the Prius is definitely the champ, Ford offers some good hybrids, one of them even at the same price as their non-hybrids.

        Companies with vehicles that can run with no gas at all? There's only two of them right now, GM and Nissan.

        Just because you've never bought an efficient vehicle from the domestics doesn't mean they don't offer them. They offer them and they sell them. They're preparing for higher gas prices. You just refuse to look.
        • 4 Years Ago
        They will survive, but it will be knee-jerk and late.... as always.

        It just frazzles me, man. Our domestic companies are too stupid to save themselves. The unions and some regulations don't help either. So they fail and we bail. It is like dealing with a species that is destined for extinction.

        Ford sort of has the right idea, but they have a while to go.
        This applies to a lot of car companies too, not just GM. But it's double suck to see *us* being the ones that will suck dirt
        • 4 Years Ago
        er, Lutz :P
        • 4 Years Ago
        Frank? Honest? He's talking as if GM can survive "$4 or $5". Sure, they'll sell every Volt...but that won't save the rest of their lineup.

        I wonder who's going to snatch up the Volt patents at the fire sale....BYD?
      • 4 Years Ago
      Yeah, the Volt powertrain could become the dominant powertrain that GM makes several years down the road. For now, it is just a nice start and a jump on the competition. But if they keep it going, continually refine it, reduce the costs . . . they may find themselves in the driver's seat of the industry. (Bad pun intended.)
        • 4 Years Ago
        "I think we may see restrictions on the hours of continuous driving people will be allowed to do"


        where do you live? communist china?

        • 4 Years Ago
        Communist UK! ;-)
        • 4 Years Ago
        Spec, I take your point, though the whole battery swapping thing seems a bit fraught. You have a, by then, $4000 battery pack that is working pretty well, giving you real world 100 mile range. You run low and you swap it for a pack that might not be as good...
        Maybe GM will build cars with an empty bay so that when you are going to be needing more than 100 mile range you can rent an auxiliary battery pack and have it placed in the empty cubby? Or the cubby would be built to house a small genset? Hmm... Probably too many engineering problems with a removeable genset.
        I don't know what the cars will do to keep long range capability but I imagine that when it happens we will all think, wow, this is so simple, why did it take us so long to figure it out?
        • 4 Years Ago
        I think we may see restrictions on the hours of continuous driving people will be allowed to do, which will encourage the use of electric cars as they could recharge whilst the driver was having a compulsory break:
        'A maximum continuous night-time driving duration of two hours should be recommended."

        Last year, a survey found that nearly three quarters of motorists (74 per cent) admitted driving while tired in the previous 12 months, with nearly one in 10 (nine per cent) admitting to doing so once a week.

        Experts estimate that one in five fatal crashes on trunk roads are caused by tired drivers, although it is believed that the figure could be higher, as it is difficult to establish whether a crash was caused by a driver falling asleep. '


        The increasing use of global positioning would enable enforcement, save presumably where there were two license holders in the car.

        Governments might introduce such measures if oil really spiked, as a way of controlling consumption.
        I think that they might also re-introduce and enforce a 55 mph speed limit too, which would greatly favour electric cars as the consumption of electric at 55 mph is way less than at 75mph.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Spec, I think the Volt is great tech, but I wonder if it is going to lose out to pure BEV's in 9 or 10 years. If the batteries keep getting smaller, lighter and cheaper at a rate of around 8% per year (a kind of corollary to Moore's Law, but for batteries, that seems to be happening) then the 660 pound, $9000 Leaf pack would be down to less than 330 pounds and cost less than $4500. That would allow Nissan to sell a similar car in 2021, but with a 48 kWh pack that has a real world range of 160-180 miles instead of 80-90 and the weight and cost would be the same as what the Leaf has now. You would still have to pull over and re-fuel every 2 hours instead of every 4 hours for an ICE, but otherwise it would be a nearly one for one replacement for an ICE, but your fuel would cost less than 1/3 what gas costs now, and probably less than 1/5 of what it will cost then.
        I don't see BEV's being as useful or as widely accepted as EREV's before 2019 or 2021, but I think it will happen sooner rather than later.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I think there will be room on the market for both and GM will come out with BEVs. I'll probably get a BEV and use an old gas car for long trips. But the PHEV model may work well for many who refuse to deal with the shorter range of BEVs.

        I know, you can put more batteries in BEVs to extend the range but it just doesn't make much sense. You'd be paying a lot of money for battery storage that is rarely used. I think battery swapping, serial-hybrids, gen-set trailers, or just renting a gas car will always be better solutions. It just doesn't make sense to pay thousands for extra battery space that you rarely ever use. It is just cheaper to rent a gas car for those occasions when you need long range.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Meh, I'm done bashing GM. They are selling a somewhat electric car for a somewhat competitive price. Nissan has a purely electric car for a better price. Can't complain about that anymore.
      • 4 Years Ago

      I am willing to debate the merits of the car. I am not willing to discuss whether you, based on almost no evidence, think I am closed minded, willingly keeping my eyes closed, a sheep, or any of another set of negative characteristics.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Some of these questions were indeed quite "dumb".. I already smiled as I read Q#1: "How important is Chevy Volt to GM"... Obviously the car is important, as they are putting in a lot of effort to it, and why would they make an unimportant car in the state that they are in. I like how GM is really getting back into the swing of things. We are working on a GM-donated Hybrid right now for the North American EcoCar Challenge.

      Support University of Victoria in the EcoCAR competition!
      Check out the team on Uvic EcoCAR website: http://www.ecocar.uvic.ca
      Get involved on Uvic EcoCAR forum: http://ecocar.dailyforum.net/
      Learn more about the competition on Green Garage website: http://www.green-garage.org/
      • 4 Years Ago
      Painfully slow ramp up of the Volt? It was a long time in development, but production has been fine, unlike, er, other vehicles.

      The big complaints about the Volt have to be more about what it is (expensive, odd-looking, compromised in rear seat and trunk area) than how it has been produced.
      • 4 Years Ago
      "mass begets mass"
      sounds so familiar..
      it couldn't possibly be that my assessments of the Volt's design was right all along. that the key to electric car viability is to make it lean.. surely I the troll could not be right..
        • 4 Years Ago
        The Volt is too heavy. The Volt uses an oversized ICE. These have always been true, but they were always part of the reality of what it takes to get something this new to market. And that is where I think your past critique of the car falls apart.

        The perfect is always the enemy of the good. Given all of the uncertainties in building the very first commercially available serial hybrid, compromises are necessary. Using a trusted/known engine design and trusted/known body structure allows the engineering team to focus on addressing the unknowns of building a reliable serial hybrid. Then, once there is experience with these new systems and software, more attention can be paid to these areas to further improve efficiency. But the fact that future vehicles will have a tighter focus on these areas in no way means they made poor judgements when bringing the current one to market.
        • 4 Years Ago
        bvz, don't be afraid to think independently instead of holding on to the assumption that GM must be competent because they aren't always. Bob Lutz said global warming is a crock. that example alone should REALLY give you the mental courage to think on your own instead of defaulting to the incorrect position that they must know what they are doing. they didn't know what they were doing when they crushed the EV1s. they still don't know what they are doing when they hold the remaining few EV1s under contract so they wont drive again (easily circumvented though which they should simply by adding the tiniest of 1 cylinder combustion engine in a corner and call it a plugin hybrid). from the youtube videos that GM put out about some of their engineers you can also tell that at least some are very mediocre people, one was about his hotrod that he was building in his garage and put in the default unintelligent V8 'small block'. the US solution to everything.
        there is absolutely no advantage to first doing a car poorly if you have to do it right later anyway. you don't save money that way. easy to see if you weren't so afraid to think on your own.
        they simply failed to optimize the Volt because their heart wasn't really in it and they didn't get good engineers and project leaders on it. so now as he admits here they have to do it over.

        surprisingly it seems that GM and perhaps the entire region around detroit, maybe all the midwest, has an unusual concentration of ignorance. tea bagger level of ignorance. think about how spectacularly indicative it is that Bob Lutz at the very top of GM states that global warming is a crock and not one of his superiors correct him nor did any of the other automakers. he didn't express subtle doubts, he blatantly committed to Bush level stupidity and indifference. and has not retracted it since.
        however surprising it might be, these people are totally clueless when it comes to these matters. no social responsibility, no environmental responsibility, no intellectual curiosity and mendacity compounding it all. not only are they ignorant but they all have a long track record of fighting against intelligence and they still do. not one of them understand that EVs is the only one with a future. their idea of green is a turbocharged V6 in a 1600kg car. the electric side is dishonest activity because they subconsciously conclude they have to from social pressure.
        so please stop having such blind faith in them. it is entirely unwarranted. if there was freedom of speech here on ABG I would use exceedingly frank terms about them. their failures in general are so great that they constitute crimes against humanity without exaggeration. but you don't want that to be true so you close your eyes.

        wake up sheeple
        • 4 Years Ago
        I am not sure what your point is? The Volt is complicated when compared to a pure electric car but very similar to a Ford Fusion. The Volt reduces the part content of the transmission but adds battery cells. It is still going to be 20 years until you have a car battery that can go 300 miles and is affordable but lasts more then 8 years. GM went overboard when it built the battery pack because it did not want the consumer to have a negative experience with there pride and joy! Nissan has chosen to skip on all of the life extension features that the Volt has and only time will tell who is right. There are many in the industry who feels the GM battery in the Volt may last up to 12 years at 90 percent, if this is correct the resale value will show what company was smarter. No matter what we now think, if the Leaf is only good for six years no one will buy another pure electric car no matter how less complicated they are. I for one am just happy that we now have choices besides gas for the first time!
        • 4 Years Ago
        To be fair, Lutz said "Global Warming caused by CO2 is a crock" which is partially correct (many factors have resulted in warming, not just one).
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