Yesterday, we were fortunate to discuss GM’s commitment to sustainability, the Chevrolet Volt, and related topics with Mike Robinson, GM’s chief legal advocate for federal policies.

His formal title is Vice President for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy, but Robinson offered down-to-earth views on GM’s approach, challenges, goals, and concerns.

Having served as an Air Force officer from 1977-81, and earning his J.D. from Villanova Law School in 1984, that same year Robinson joined GM. Prior to accepting his present role in September 2009, he was the company's vice president and general counsel for North America.

His perspective therefore comes from well before the “new GM.” As an advocate for the company’s mission to be a good corporate citizen, he plausibly represented GM in a positive light.

He spends more time with regulators, he said, than he does in front of legislative committees .

“One of my goals in life is to spend no more time in front of a congressional committee than necessary, and I say that tongue in cheek,” Robinson said, “We provide, deliver information we can to help policymakers understand issues, have a reasonable sense of the science associated with this.”

And just as GM’s corporate responsibility Web site is concerned, so also is Robinson with the public understanding of the company.

While GM’s rolling proof of its commitment – the Volt – is still just getting started in terms of customer deliveries, Robinson said it is already full-speed-ahead in building GM’s credibility.

“I view it more not that we’re changing ways or doing things better than we were before, but perhaps telling the story better for sure,” he said of post-bankruptcy GM, “I think quite honestly the Volt has opened so many eyes, that it gives us an opportunity – maybe even permission – to tell sort of the rest of the story that we weren’t able to tell when we were making some of the prior generation products, that people just couldn’t look past, to tell how we were operating as a company. So I want people to understand the rest of the story.”

The rest of the story for the international automaker, he said, is acting with a conscience to balance legal and ethical responsibilities with products that still entice customers to buy.

As an example of responsibilities he must contend with, Robinson clarified that while it is commonly thought the federal government has unified national environmental standards, really GM must work to harmonize three federal rule-making bodies: the EPA, which mandates CO2 emissions, the California Air Research Board, and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), operating under the purview of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

All three have separate charters, and each works under very specific guidelines mandating auto environmental regulations.

When not meeting regulators' requirements, as a company first catering to paying customers, GM is essentially not putting all its eggs in one basket, Robinson said. It offers the Chevrolet Volt for those who can see the value, but also a wide array of technologies, with no alternative or green technologies yet ruled out.

Robinson, who works with about a dozen staff members, spends a fair amount of his time traveling to Washington to deal with all sorts of issues, including those affecting the Chevrolet Volt.

“We’re advocating for better fuel economy, but at the end of day, the customer will decide, this is the United States of America,” Robinson said, “it’s a free market, and people do get to make choices about what they will buy and how they want to spend their hard earned money.”

He spoke of a “value proposition that makes sense to them,” and thus earn their business.

“That’s why it is important to offer a variety of choices. Because I don’t think anyone’s got the silver bullet answer to anything yet,” Robinson said of environmentally friendly solutions, “We’re looking at all kinds of technologies. You know, fuel cell technology, and we certainly haven’t stopped producing flex fuel vehicles. There will be other technologies I’m sure as time goes forward.”

All this said, among the technologies GM has developed, Robinson is most enthusiastic about the Voltec platform.

“I would describe the Volt as not the end solution, but certainly a great bridge to get us where we all want to go,” Robinson said, while qualifying, “I love the vehicle. The most surprising thing about the vehicle to me, apart from the genius – and I use that word sparingly, but I use that in this case – apart from the genius of the technology itself is it really is incredible. The most surprising thing to me is the operation of the vehicle when you get inside the cockpit and you start to drive it.”

Robinson reminded us the extended-range Volt was created around studies showing 75 to 80 percent of people's daily driving requirements could be handled by battery only range, and thus far, he said, GM was spot on.

GM's 33,000-square-foot Global Battery Systems Lab - the largest automotive battery lab in the U.S. - opened June 8, 2009 at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Mich. The lab will accelerate advanced battery technology and expedite introduction of electrically driven vehicles, as well as plug-in hybrids, hybrid-electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles.

“The data is actually proving that out. I’ve taken a look at two of the earlier returns through OnStar. It’s almost smack on that ratio. Both during the week, and even on the weekend in terms of driving habits,” Robinson said, adding they’ll keep monitoring data, but, “I think the original theory behind the vehicle is holding up in terms of the driving patterns of the people that bought the vehicle so far, and are using it.”

Robinson said he’s had opportunity to introduce the Volt to all sorts of people from policymakers, to visitors from all over, and other VIPs.

“When you tell them to punch it, and really put the vehicle through its paces. They’re stunned at how well it handles,” Robinson said of the 3,700-pound car, adding that they almost always say something like, “’Hey! This is a real car.’ I think you cannot pay it a better compliment than that.”

But since no one knows the future, and GM is experimenting with all kinds of technology, we asked whether GM would consider a pure Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)?

“Sure. Yeah they’re considering that,” Robinson said, “And I will say that we’re considering it based on what the customer needs would be for the people that could best take advantage of, you know, the limits associated with a pure BEV.”

Would GM make this for the U.S. market or abroad?

“Both. Inside and outside the US,” Robinson said, “It would really be an urban vehicle. You wouldn’t need it to venture elsewhere. Or it would be a purely secondary vehicle.”

But what about the Voltec platform, we pressed. What new vehicles will we see coming with it?

Safety and design regulations are all part of Robinson's legal oversight for GM.

As one might expect, GM's legal VP did not spill any secrets, but he did hint around the edges.

“I will tell you that there’s certainly plenty of ideas and things under exploration … I will be very surprised if we don’t have Voltec technology on some other applications going forward.”

OK, that’s pretty apparent, but when, we asked. Soon? A couple years from now?

“I know this, that our people are anxious to find ways sooner rather than later to take advantage of this,” Robinson said, “We think this is a winner and we think this is a technology that people are clamoring for.”

The biggest challenge, Robinson said, involves developing efficiencies, and cutting costs without cutting quality.

“We are trying to drive cost out of everything we do,” he said citing GM CEO Dan Akerson who has said the same thing, “The Volt is very expensive to produce but we’re optimistic we’re going to get the cost down in every phase of the manufacturing and component cost of the vehicles.”

Part of this will come from assistance via non-contradicting government policies, Robinson said, now speaking again from his true area of expertise.

“And that’s everybody’s mandate; to make this technology as cost effective as possible so the customer gets a good value proposition. That’s a huge challenge, but it’s one we are going to step up to. But that’s true of all these technologies,” Robinson said, “It’s true of compressed natural gas, it’s true of fuel cells; these things cost money. And I’m worried, if you talk about the things that worry you. I worry about making sure we have coherent national policies that support these technologies, so we will be technological leaders and not followers around the world.”

GM is wide open to what ever shakes out in this grand technological experiment in which it finds itself to be a world player. (L to R) Cruze Z-Spec Concept, Volt Z-Spec Concept, Spark Z-Spec Concept, November 2010.

But, we asked, what do you say to free market advocates who say government mandates, policies, subsidies and incentives – on the consumer and manufacturing side – are an artificial crutch? Or to frame them positively, are they a necessary jump start to wean us from oil?

“My view of them is, as a matter of national policy, if it’s important for us to have less and less fossil fuel used in generating power, then it’s going to be a matter of national commitment. I mean you can’t just mandate the stuff. You have to have a coordinated, cohesive approach,” Robinson said, “Now if the goal for the country is to reduce by, let’s say, 80 percent the amount of CO2 that’s produced in our manufacturing and transportation, then you have to do some things to change that. And my expectation is that it’s not going to go away overnight, that’s for sure. But eventually my grandkids aren’t going to be driving internal combustion engine cars.”

OK, thank you, we said. We’ve heard similar things before, but it’s good to hear it coming from someone so close to the issues. To finish up, here’s a couple easy questions:

What do you like least about your job?

“It’s a character flaw. I have a real problem with bureaucracies. Internally that has not been an issue within GM believe it or not,” Robinson said, “I’ve never had big problems with that and especially with the new GM. I can tell what ever vestiges there may have been – from my standpoint anyway – there’s just none of that that I have to worry about. Unfortunately, when you deal with a lot of different constituencies in the government – that each have a legitimate point of view – getting stuff done takes a little longer than you’d like. I have to be patient and work through those things. Like I said there are a lot of legitimate points of view that have to be taken into consideration. Some times I get a little impatient, and I have to guard against that.”

And what do you like best about your job?

"The issues are so cutting edge, and they’re so timely, and they’re so important, how do you not get excited about coming to work every day?” Robinson asked, “I mean this is the most exciting stuff that anybody’s working on right? It’s what we can do to reduce our CO2 footprint in our plants, or to reduce the amount of energy we use there, or the amount of water we use there – or vehicles like the Volt – I mean this is a fun business, and these are tough issues, but we’re on the cutting edge, and that’s pretty exciting.”