Q&A: GM's Bob Lutz on the Volt and More

The General Motors "car czar" explains the company's plans for overtaking Toyota.

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It has taken years, but executives at General Motors finally acknowledge some of the company's failures: losing customers because of shoddy cars, dismissing hybrids as a fad, ceding technology leadership to Japanese rival Toyota and others. Now, GM is trying to regain some of its lost luster with innovations of its own: Real-world customers are testing a fleet of 100 hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. The first full-size hybrid SUVs, the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, are about to hit the market. And by the end of 2010, GM hopes to launch an electric car, the Chevy Volt, that some experts think could transform the industry. U.S. News spoke recently with GM's "car czar," Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, about the giant automaker's plans.

GM is working on several different alternatives to the internal-combustion engine—fuel cells, cellulosic ethanol, hybrids, electric cars. Can you outline the overall strategy?

Fuel cells are extremely difficult, because there's no infrastructure for fueling them. A battery-recharging infrastructure is available—it's the electrical grid. We've got a lot of problems to solve because nobody's done this before. What's new is the whole interaction between the internal combustion engine and the battery. The car's circuitry must handle enormous power loads. There's a lot of intricate software. The software is really important, right, because that's where the intellectual property is? Is GM keeping that in-house, or getting it from suppliers?

We can probably write 60 to 70 percent of the software ourselves. We have to cover every possible sequence of events. That's what takes so long. When will you have prototype battery-powered cars that you'll actually be able to drive?

By the spring of '08, we'll have all these old Malibus with battery packs that we'll drive around. How confident are you that it's going to work?

Our computations show this is going to work. Our suppliers know lithium ion chemistry. We're not inventing anything. There's no reason to believe this won't work. There would have to be some horrible surprise for it not to work. How important is the Volt for GM? What's at stake? You've got Toyota going in a slightly different direction, with its hybrids powered by nickel metal hydride batteries. They're playing down lithium.

We now have showdown at the OK Corral. You have one giant auto company saying it won't work, and one saying it will. Ever since Toyota assumed the mantle of technology leader, there's been a certain class of buyer who wants to be associated with the best technology. In that sense, every Toyota has a little bit of Prius in it. The iconic Toyota vehicle is the Prius. The iconic GM vehicle is the Hummer H2. So that creates the impression that Toyota is frugal, GM guzzles. Toyota loves the environment, GM pillages the environment. Perception becomes reality. Well, this is about recapturing General Motors' technological leadership. We want to be the company that has the solutions for tomorrow. And you think lithium ion batteries are the way to do that?

The problem with lithium ion is scalability. But now Black & Decker has been using it in tools. Segway switched to lithium ion from nickel metal hydride two years ago for their transporter. Then I read about Tesla, these battery-powered cars with a 200-mile range. To do that, they're using thousands of laptop batteries wired together. When Tesla announced they were building a car, that kind of tore it for me. I thought, "If some little West Coast outfit can do this, we can no longer stand by." So how has the program developed since then?

The first plan was to simply cram a lot of lithium ion batteries into a vehicle and give it a range of about 100 miles. Then [GM Vice President] Jon Lauckner said, "How about a smaller battery with a lower range?" That led to the Volt. For the launch last January, we made sure it wasn't a science fair project we were doing just to get attention. Then we put it in the Detroit show. Even at GM, there seems to be some skepticism that you can get this car out by 2010.

General Motors
  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.