General Motors has long been known for cutting-edge research, and there's no doubt that its grasp of advanced technology rivals that of Toyota and Honda. Its most impressive accomplishment in recent years was the innovative, high performance EV-1 electric car, unveiled in model year 1997. But GM never seriously marketed it and then quickly gave up on it when sales were slow. (GM's CEO was later to say that axing the EV-1 was his worst decision, noting that "it didn't affect profitability, but it did affect image."79) Also impressive, over a decade earlier, was the launching of the unique Saturn brand, with its plastic body parts, efficient manufacturing, and innovative worker relations. Saturn attracted a large number of enthusiasts, but many of the unique aspects of this novel brand were abandoned by 2002.
As the new century dawned, GM dismissed hybrid technology as an expensive detour and touted its substantial R&D investment in hydrogen and fuel cells. This dismissal of hybrids proved wrongheaded on various levels. GM soon did an about-face. In early 2005, vice chairman Bob Lutz said GM had "failed to recognize the long-term potential of [hybrid] technology and the chance to endear itself to environmentally sensitive consumers." He went on to say, "We failed to appreciate that Toyota basically treated it as an advertising expense. They said we need these to demonstrate our technological superiority, demonstrate our concern for the environment, capture the imagination of the growing environmental movement in the U.S., and get all those East Coast and West Coast intellectual opinion leaders, movie stars, etc., on our side, which they very successfully did____So even if they lose money on it, it's cheap at twice the price."80 What Lutz got right is that GM had once again failed to be a leader. What he got wrong was misrepresenting costs, disingenuously implying hybrids were nothing more than a public relations coup, and ignoring the many benefits of being a technological leader.
From 2001 until 200781, GM widely broadcast its commitment to hydrogen and fuel cells as its primary strategy to reduce fuel consumption and emissions and as a way to leapfrog into the future. For several years it splashed full-page ads on its hydrogen plans in opinion leader magazines and newspapers such as the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and the Economist. Was this greenwashing an attempt to camouflage its meager environmental accomplishments or a sincere corporate commitment? An analysis of fuel cell patents casts some doubt. GM never was a leader in fuel cell patents. In 2003, for instance, when GM was in the midst of its expansive hydrogen and fuel cell R&D program, it was assigned fewer than 50 new patents, versus more than 300 by Honda and more than 240 by Toyota and Nissan.82 And year after year, GM delayed pulling the trigger in bringing fuel cells to the marketplace. If GM had made the same commitment to fuel cells that Toyota and Honda did to hybrids, one might trust its intentions and admire its commitment.
The ostentatious promotion of ethanol fuels by GM is another example of self-serving behavior camouflaged as environmentalism. The company joined Ford and Chrysler on June 28, 2006, in sending an open letter to the U.S. Congress pledging to double its production of flexible-fuel vehicles to two million a year by 2010. It was a public relations stunt and not the significant environmental commitment the companies made it out to be. It costs only about $100 to outfit a car to operate on ethanol fuel blends containing more than the standard 10 percent ethanol (in conventional "gasohol"). Moreover, the company benefits by gaining valuable fuel economy credits for doing so.83
Almost none of the flexible-fuel vehicles will ever run on anything but gasoline (containing up to 10 percent ethanol). In 2007, fewer than 0.1 percent of stations in the United States offered ethanol fuel, and they were mostly in a few midwestern states and largely unused. Even with the upsurge in ethanol production it's unlikely there will be many ethanol stations into the foreseeable future, for the simple reason that it's easier and more cost-
effective to mix the ethanol into gasoline as a 10 percent blend component than sell it as ethanol.84 GM knew all this as it disingenuously trumpeted its commitment to ethanol in newspapers and magazines and on TV.
Even more jarring was GM's purchase of Hummer at the same time that it was recalling and crushing the leased EV-1s, coupled with its prominent offer in spring 2006 to subsidize the cost of gasoline for buyers of its largest SUVs. The company promised to cover any cost exceeding $1.99 per gallon for a year, blatantly subsidizing gas-guzzling vehicles. It was just "one more example of GM's tone-deafness on environmental issues,"85 as the Automotive News asserted in a lead editorial.
In 2007, with its fuel cell and hydrogen promises lingering, GM latched on to a new green product, its plug-in hybrid Volt. Again it launched a torrent of press events and splashy media ads. It showcased the prototype car around the country. The car certainly was an attractive concept. Offering a 40-mile range on pure electricity and a much longer range on its gasoline engine for those times when a driver wants to go farther, it had all the attractions of a pure battery electric car without the range disadvantage. General Motors promised it would begin production as soon as an adequate battery emerged—scheduled for 2010. It undoubtedly will produce the vehicle, but most likely in small volumes since the car is inherently very expensive— combining a full electric drive system with a large expensive battery and full-sized combustion engine system. All other companies are aiming for less expensive designs with smaller batteries, thus positioning themselves for the mass market. Will GM surprise us with a major mass-market commitment? We hope so, but its track record isn't encouraging.
One more anecdote casts still further doubt on the genuineness of GM's embrace of the new energy and environmental reality. Bob Lutz, the outspoken and highly regarded vice chairman who successfully transformed GM's product offerings and champions the company's plug-in hybrid Volt and commitment to electrification of the car, is well known for his off-color and skeptical views on the environment. After being quoted as saying in a January 2008 closed-door meeting with reporters that global warming is a "total crock of . . . ," he followed up in a GM blog, writing that "my beliefs are mine and I have a right to them, just as you have a right to yours____Never mind what I said, or the context in which I said it. My thoughts on what has or hasn't been the cause of climate change have nothing to do with the decisions I make to advance the cause of General Motors."86 How wrong he is. As an editor at Automotive News wrote, "When the vice chairman of GM, an icon and the czar of vehicle development, calls the scientists' consensus on global warming a bunch of doo-doo, he's unavoidably speaking for the company. Does the consumer want to buy a car from a company that professes to want to save the world (think Toyota and Honda) or from a company that begrudgingly plans to meet what it characterizes as misguided federal standards? . . . Yes, the vehicles matter. But so do ideas and brands____Which leads to this question: Will people who want fuel-saving technology want to buy a GM vehicle?"87 And if the company feels no need to rein him in, how deep can its commitment to advanced environmental technology really be?
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