[ad#post_ad]Bob Lutz is the vice chairman of GM and set to retire on May1st. He is an outspoken highly successful and provocative automotive executive with 50 years of experience in the business who is credited with creating the Chevy Volt. I had the exciting opportunity to ask many questions of Mr. Lutz during a one hour one-on-one exit interview. In this first segment he explains how the Volt was born and eventually made it into production.
I wanted to say that I and the GM-Volt readership wanted to thank you for conceiving the Volt concept and for carrying it through to completion, as well as for all the very interesting commentary along the way.
You’re quite welcome. Its an act of love and enthusiasm.
When you first conceived the Volt what was you’re primary intention? Was it just to float an idea out there or did you have production in mind from the very beginning?
I think the very first time I surfaced the thought at the automotive strategy board was for a purely lithium ion powered battery only car, somewhat akin to what Nissan is doing with the Leaf. The more we talked about it the more we realized we didn’t want to live with the range limitations and everybody still had a bad taste in their mouth around here from the EV-1 debacle and the amount of money we lost on that. So there was very little enthusiasm for a pure electric car and there was some hostility also towards lithium ion batteries where the story was that they would never work in an automotive cell.
My desire was to put an electric car concept out there to show the world that unlike the press reports that painted GM as an unfeeling uncaring squanderer of petroleum resources while wonderful Toyota was reinventing the automobile, I just wanted something on the show stand that would show that hey we’re not just thinking of a Prius hybrid here, we’re trying to get gasoline out of the equation entirely.
And then I just couldn’t get enough of a consensus in the company to do that.
Then when Tesla came out with the announcement of the Roadster my point was that if some group of California software guys can make a viable electric car using lithium ion laptop batteries and they can claim a 200 mile range, 0 to 60 in 4 and a half seconds and 140 mph top speed, it seemed to me that we as still the world’s most competent car company, we should be able to do likewise, and I suggested we start talking to Tesla and find out as much as we could.
That’s about when we decided,’ OK alright, lets do a show car.’
Sitting down with John Lauckner he really convinced me that all-electric really wasn’t the way to go, that we should have a small piston engine in it as a ranger extender and that way we could get by with a relative small relatively inexpensive lithium ion battery and people would not be on a tether.
As the owner of several electric vehicles from Segway to Vectrix motor scooters I can tell you that range anxiety in a pure electric vehicle is real. Your range varies so much according to conditions and temperature.
John sketched it out on a pad, then we talked to design and we got going on the original Volt prototype.
Frankly at that point John Laucker and I decided there was nothing about this concept that couldn’t or shouldn’t make it to production.
Our thought was we’ll dazzle everybody with the showcar and once we’ve dazzled everybody with the show car, people will start clamoring for production. That’s exactly how it worked out.
So you actually anticipated the response that it got?
I anticipated half of it. Even my incredibly large expectations were handily exceeded by the response that it got.
How did that reaction affect the company, the people in the company, and the leadership?
I think it changed a lot of minds. Our board of directors contained some technologists on it, for instance Kent Kresa who was formerly CEO of Northrop Grumman. He has always been an advocated of electric propulsion. Northrop Grumman was during the time he was on the Chrysler board, they actually did some lead acid powered electric minivan that was a project they were doing with the defense department. So he’s always been a pusher for advanced technology and he became very vocal and he said there is absolutely nothing he could see that should prevent this company from building this vehicle. He became a very strong ally.
We very quickly did a business case, did some cost estimates, and some investment estimates, a lot of which turned out in retrospect to be somewhat naively optimistic. All in all we were able to put together a credible business case and lay out a credible way of getting car like that into production. There was enough enthusiasm for the concept in the company to carry the day.
I recall Rick Wagoner didn't announce production until June of 08, was that prior year still in flux as to what would happen?
That was still the year when we were putting the whole thing together. Don’t forget we completely changed the vehicle’s appearance, because the one we had at the auto show looked nice but had a poor drag coefficient. The package was no good the layout of the engine, electric motor, and the generator were all kind of in the wrong place. Then we had to re-execute the car off our global compact car architecture. That whole design development, getting the car with a decent interior package and getting it to look halfway decent, in fact I think very decent. We’re all in love with the way that it looks because it rides so low to the ground and its very sneaky looking.
Then we had to get that drag coefficient down to 0.27 or 0.28. All of that the business plan really was tied in to the drag performance of the car, because if we couldn’t get a good looking car down to .27 or .28 then we weren’t going to get the range and then it would make the acceptability of the car questionable. It all kind of had to come together. It really didn’t come together until we had a winning style.