Re-Volted by policy

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - When GM CEO Rick Wagoner unveiled the latest version of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt during the company’s 100th anniversary celebrations, he whistled the happy tune that current financial turmoil wouldn’t affect U.S. government loan guarantees to develop such “alternative” vehicles.

But Washington is suddenly looking strapped for cash, so the prospects for the $25-billion of cheap loans to the automotive industry that were approved last year as part of an energy bill are looking distinctly iffy. That is far from the Volt’s only problem.

“The Volt symbolizes GM’s commitment to the future,” declared Mr. Wagoner, “the kind of technological innovation that our industry needs to respond to today and tomorrow’s energy and environmental challenges.


But what it really symbolizes is a desperate response to the power of radical environmentalism, the threat of draconian policies and the dubious desire for energy independence.

Ironically, Bob Lutz, GM’s vice-chairman and the man brought in to revitalize its car line-up, has claimed that the theory of man-made climate change is a “crock of shit.” However, he is a convert to energy independence, which is one hell of a burden to put on any company’s balance sheet.

Mr. Lutz demonstrated his bravery by appearing on The Colbert Report, where he admitted that the Volt wouldn’t lay rubber in going from 0-60, but might get its owner laid with “no-makeup environmental types.”

Private pursuit of political or social objectives always tends to be a risky business, but the auto industry is being asked to help save the planet by performing just-in-time technological miracles.

The Volt, which GM announced two years ago, is being peddled as the great white hope of less gasoline-intensive driving (although perhaps such terminology is not entirely appropriate since a recent article in The Atlantic referred to the Volt — tongue in cheek — as “the Barack Obama of automobiles — everyone’s hope for change.”

According to GM, the car will have a top speed of 160 km/h and a range of 64 km without using any gasoline. Then a gas engine will charge up — not to run the car, but to run its generator and charge its battery, which will continue to supply the car’s motive power.

There are a couple of gargantuan hurdles facing the Volt. One is that the technology to achieve the above-mentioned marvels doesn’t actually exist. Success still depends on advances in lithium ion battery technology that cannot be guaranteed. In any sane world, the battery technology breakthrough would be made before you started building a car around it, but GM is using the ready, fire, aim approach.

The other problem is that even if the thousands of engineers toiling at GM and its component suppliers actually pull of this marvel, its retail cost is estimated at between $35,000 and $50,000.

Within GM, apparently, the Volt project is being compared to the Apollo moonshot, but presumably they don’t mean crushingly expensive and commercially pointless. GM cannot afford a no-expenses spared approach because it happens to be a profit-making corporation.

But invoking Apollo is perhaps useful in trying to pry loose those taxpayer funds.

Fighting man-made climate change is the new Earth-bound Apollo program, a rocket aimed at the world’s economy. But then if governments want to dictate what people drive, then presumably they should cough up some of the cash.

After all, as David Paterson, GM Canada’s VP of corporate and environmental affairs, told the Post’s Nicholas Van Praet, “We’re literally reinventing automobiles by regulation.”

The North American industry was already reeling from failure to respond to superior overseas competitors, and to horrendous legacy costs, which have now significantly been addressed, but it is hardly in sound shape.

Protecting the environment for future generations appears a legitimate if somewhat megalomanic objective, but this worthy sentiment has been hijacked by the UN’s sustainable development agenda, which amounts to the greatest attack on markets since Das Kapital.

As for the Volt’s prospects, we might remember that in 1999, DaimlerChrysler, as it then was, unveiled a sexy-looking soon-to-be-commercial vehicle, powered by a government-subsidized Ballard fuel cell, that reportedly went at 90 miles per hour for 280 miles. The problem was that the fuel cell (not the car, just the fuel cell) reportedly cost $35,000.

DaimlerChrysler’s then head, Jurgen Schrempp, nevertheless claimed that such fuel-cell-powered cars could be on the road by 2004.

You will notice that they are not.

Perhaps the worst of all outcomes would be if GM did pull off its Volt miracle, because that would encourage activists and governments to believe that all they have to do to control the economy in the public — not to mention the planetary — interest is to threaten and regulate. But the odds seem stacked against any such success.

Like its previous electric car, the EV1, which was a dud, the Volt faces an uphill battle, and electric motors have trouble with hills. Meanwhile we can be absolutely sure about one critical aspect of the Volt, which is perhaps its most bizarre feature: it won’t have the slightest impact on either the global environment or the geopolitics of oil.


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