Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Still working on the Volt

In order for electrical cars to become a serious alternative, they MUST be built by serious car guys.  Robert Lutz is clearly a car guy and I still believe his Chevy Volt idea will be the prototype for any reasonable future car.  Still working out the kinks but with guys like Lutz, you have some assurance that the kinks WILL be worked out.

Company man: Q&A with Bob Lutz

By Markkus Rovito

Bob Lutz tends not to speak in abbreviations. More often than not, it’s “gasoline,” not gas, “General Motors,” not GM. Perhaps it’s indicative of a man who came of age a couple of generations before cable TV, the Internet and Twitter frayed everyone’s attention spans into spiderweb strands. Perhaps it’s symbolic of his perpetual willingness to go the extra mile for his country and his businesses.

Either way, the loquacious Lutz has earned the extra few syllables per sentence. The automotive legend turned 80 on February 12, but he still looks and sounds vital. Even better, and in contrast to the typical assumption about octogenarians (think Fidel Castro with Pope Benedict XVI) Lutz is still entirely relevant.

After 47 years of executive leadership at companies such as General Motors, BMW, Ford, and Chrysler (on top of 11 years as a Marine attack aviator), Lutz resigned as Vice Chairman of GM and settled into semi-retirement as an industry Übermensch.

His current docket suggests that he’s definitely not out to pasture just yet. Since “retiring,” Lutz has published the bestselling book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, joined Transonic Combustion’s board of directors, and begun contributing to CNBC and Forbes, as well as consulting for his old fellows at GM.

Among other appointments, Lutz joined the board of directors of VIA Motors in September 2011. On the occasion of VIA’s March announcement of an E-REV electric truck beta test with California’s PG&E that Lutz joined Charged for a candid chat about the value proposition of electric pickup trucks for service fleets, the fate of the Chevy Volt, political misinformation, and of course, his featured turn in last year’s documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car. Lutz showed up looking iconic on a sunny Bay Area day. Well-tanned, in a bomber jacket, sunglasses and his signature white head of hair, Lutz appeared poised to star in another American business success story.

Is there already demand for the E-REVs or are you having to convince people of their value?

Bob Lutz: There’s plenty of demand, but the productionizing of the vehicle is not finished. That’s going to take another six to eight months. What people don’t realize is that just because you produce one or two that you can demonstrate, does not mean that you’ve got the reliability under all weather conditions, all temperatures, all altitudes, all kinds of customer abuse.

For instance, about a year ago, a British guy who was converting Escalades and Range Rovers to lithium-ion batteries said he’d pick me up at London airport and drive me to a conference. It was a 200-mile Range Rover loaded with Li-ion batteries. I said “Are you producing?” He says, “oh yes, we’re producing and selling. It’s totally reliable, what is there that could possibly go wrong?” So on the way from Heathrow Airport to London we get into this torrential rain. We’re driving through puddles that are about four inches deep, and all of a sudden this electric Range Rover comes to a grinding halt right in the middle of the freeway. We needed other trucks to hump us over. It was really, really bad. We were supposed to go to this conference, and we were standing outside in soaking wet suits. And he says, “oh, we never tested it in deep water before.”

So the beta test with PG&E is a part of the preparation?

BL: That’s one of the things VIA is doing that is very good: putting a certain number of beta units into fleets to gather actual day-to-day operating experience. How much maintenance do they need? Are they doing their 40 miles electrically, and if not what are they getting? The experience gained on the beta units will help on the production units.

And once the fleets are using them, I see a market for private sport utilities, because with future fuel economy regulations, it’s going to be hard to produce and sell something like an Escalade anymore. With the mileage requirements mandated for 2020, they’re either going to have to be rationed or be made way smaller. If you imagine a 100mpg Escalade, the big sport utilities that are now decried as irresponsible squanderers of global resources and contributing to global warming suddenly become environmental statements - guilt-free enjoyment of full-size sport utilities, which a lot of people will pay for. Let’s face it, the full-size sport utility is a favorite vehicle of Americans. The only downside is they use so much fuel. If you can make that go away, whether an Escalade costs $65,000 or $85,000, the guy who buys or leases those doesn’t care. more


  1. Jonathan,

    Cars such as the Volt and the Leaf are a good idea in theory. I would say that the Volt is a lot better than the Leaf because it does not have the limited mileage problem.

    In the real world, I feel that both of them have lost out to Toyota. The Prius has been shipping for more than 10 years and offers roughly 50 MPG. I own a Prius and can say with experience that it provides a good balance between fuel economy and power. I have driven the Prius to Ski Resorts with fairly heavy snow and ice on the road without any problems. I had to use chains but that would be the case with any other FWD.

    Now Prius family includes a plugin version with roughly 10 mile range and a V version with more space. These are small changes to the base platform but they are steps in the right direction.

    In summary, I feel the real threat to the Volt is that it is already too late to market. I hope to see an American success story but the realist in me tell me not to bet on it.



  2. I am a Toyota guy who lives in a town with MANY Prius. So I am not surprised at your POV.

    But here is why I find the Volt so interesting. Historically, there is a period of overlap when the new technology replaces the old. And so we saw early steamships with primitive rigging to give them some sort of limp-home capability if the engine conked out. In the changeover from gasoline to electricity, there will be problems associated with operating the new technology—folks will have to learn how to be electric vehicle owners which is a rather large problem. Also, if this conversion is to happen, the larger infrastructure which supplies the juice for charging must change. So the period of conversion could be long. The vehicle best suited for those times is an electric car with a range extended / limp-home capabilities that can tap into the existing infrastructure of filling stations. Think of the Volt as an electric car with some very good training wheels.

    One sign that this really IS the future is the plug-in Prius. At some point, a manufacturer will find the sweet spot between battery range and gasoline power and combined with some reputation for build excellence / price, will produce the first "hit". But my prediction is that this hit will be a variation of the Volt idea.