Businessweek Archives

WSJ Attack on Chevy Volt----Shocking


Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. writes a pretty tedious editorial in The Wall Street Journal today, suggesting that General Motors is wrong-headed for developing the plug-in Chevy Volt.

Holman W. Jenkins Jr. does make one reasonable point. The Department of Transportation’s announcement that automakers will have to boost fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks by 4.5% a year until 2015, is subject to change by a future Congress and White House if automakers can’t get there, market conditions and oil prices changes, etc. There are a host of things that can happen between now and then to move the goal posts.

But here is where Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. loses me. “America’s biggest near-dead car company called in reporters this month to boast – boast! – about its willingness to lose money on its forthcoming electric car. That includes betting the farm on whether batteries can be developed with the necessary power-to-weight ratio and life expectancy to give the car its needed usability. “Whatever it takes to do, we will do” to deliver the plug-in Volt by a 2010 deadline, project leader Frank Weber told journalists.”

The scientists I have interviewed over the past few years tell me that not only is the technology within reach, but that it makes too much sense not to pursue with gusto. Do costs have to be brought down? Yes. But never has an application of technology come along that so perfectly matched the peculiarities of the U.S. driver. The plug-in is designed to run between 40 and 50 miles on an electrical charge. If you have to go a longer distance, an engine that kicks on to recharge the battery will get you there. It takes the nervousness of running out of juice out of the mix.

Honda doesn’t see the market for plug-ins. Okay. But Honda have us the awkward looking Insight to answer the Prius, as well as the Ridgeline pickup and the Element. Honda’s read of the consumer desire side of the busines can be off.

GM sees the Volt and its plug-in siblings as a new lens through which the U.S. and world will view the company—if it gets the products right and delivers. But fault the company for over-spending on breakthrough technology? Why? GM has gotten management decisions wrong plenty of times (linking with Italian automaker Fiat before its financial renaissance comes to mind) They have also gotten product decisions wrong plenty of times (see: Pontiac Aztek, Chevy Outlander and Saturn LS to name a few.).

A financial and management commitment to bring a game-changing technology to showrooms is hardly something to criticize. As Toyota has proved, the presence of the Prius in showrooms and in the papers makes even its thirstiest gas suckers like the Sequoia and Tundra appear greener than GM’s vehicles even when they aren’t.

More from Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. “For some number of dollars, GM can afford to bribe consumers to drive Volts off the lot…”

GM is betting that there will be early adopters, as well as government incentives to help consumers buy the new technology…just as there were for the Prius. GM opted out of hybrids in the 1990s because it rightly saw that gas-electric hybrids were an inelegant engineering solution for higher fuel economy. It made a bet that hydrogen-powered cars would come along faster than reality tells us now is the case.

Yes, it’s a bit of a roll of the dice for GM. And it’s unlike the way the “near death” automaker Jenkins describes has behaved in the past. From my vantage point, it looks like GM is taking in the political reality that we will never have European-style gas taxes to drive demand for smaller vehicles, so it is trying to one-up Toyota on the technology front. If GM falls on its face in the execution, we can all write that story. But to pillory the company for trying? What for?

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