Best of Bob Lutz: Farewell to the Chevy Volt Frontman

Bob Lutz — the General Motors executive who for years denied climate change, made his name with muscle cars and trucks and eventually came to champion what now represents Detroit’s most serious effort to produce an alternative-fuel vehicle (the Chevy Volt) —  plans to retire at the end of this year. He’ll transition to “senior advisor” as early as April 1, GM announced today.

For better or worse, the vice-chairman and product chief has been an impossible-to-ignore figure on the EV scene for longer than most (he was at the helm of GM’s new-vehicle team when the company was skewered in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”) — thanks in large part to his willingness to let loose strong opinions in a sea of carefully controlled corporate messages. So, at the end of an era, it’s worth looking back at some Lutz gems.

On the CO2 Theory: In celebration of GM’s 100th anniversary and the unveiling of the Volt, Lutz took a trip over to the Colbert Report. We’ll give him this much — Lutz was somewhat funny in some parts. But he repeated his very unfunny thoughts on the role of human activity in climate change. Colbert went into a joke tangent about how the creation of the Volt is “tantamount to admitting we have to do something about global warming . . . why not call this the Chevy Gore. You don’t believe global warming is real, you’ve said so.” Cue Lutz:

I accept that the planet is heated but I, like many noted scientists, I don’t believe in the CO2 theory.

On the Better Place Model: Lutz has a lot of reasons to dislike the Better Place business model, and he’s happy to share. He told the Toronto Star’s Tyler Hamilton that GM’s batteries are purpose-built for the vehicle (not standardized), and the company can’t afford to wait for Agassi to standardize batteries. He also says he’s worried about the risks of Better Places’ networks. And then there’s this juicy quote — a Lutz classic:

I’m also somewhat troubled by the situation where a company becomes the equivalent of a cellular provider, and here is Mr. Agassi, who buys the electricity in bulk and resells it to you at a tremendous profit in the form of charged batteries. And he would have to charge a lot, because when you start thinking about the upfront investment in a dense network of charging stations all over the country . . . I don’t see how the business equation could possibly work. Unless he resells it to you at a tremendous mark-up. Which wouldn’t be profiteering.

On GM’s Failures…Wait, What Failures?: GM took out a full-page ad in the trade journal Automotive News in the midst of its bailout negotiations with the feds, acknowledging its shortcomings and admitting mistakes like not paying attention to a changing market. Then Lutz gave a video interview with CNBC and removed all suspicion that the company’s execs were, in fact, deeply apologetic. He said GM matched the productivity and quality of Japan’s automakers and blamed overall poor market conditions for the global auto industry. Oh, and he argued that the “bailout” should actually be referred to as “short term loans.” What about all the fingers being pointed at GM CEO Rick Wagoner? According to Lutz:

That’s like blaming the mayor of a city that’s been hit by an earthquake….That’s in the category of a sacrificial lamb.

On that Dang Upstart, Tesla: When Lutz proposed the idea of the Volt back in 2003, he had no support. So when Silicon Valley’s electric vehicle startup Tesla first launched in 2006, he took the move as a call to arms, according to a turn-around story published in Newsweek early last year:

“That tore it for me,” says Lutz. “If some Silicon Valley startup can solve this equation, no one is going to tell me anymore that it’s unfeasible.”

On the Volt Battery Deal and U.S. Policy: Explaining to the Michigan Business Review why GM went with South Korea’s LG Chem, instead of runner up A123Systems as the lithium-ion cell supplier for the Chevy Volt, Lutz took a jab at U.S. policymakers:

This is one of the things why we say, if we’re serious about the electrification of the automobile, as part of the national energy policy we do need government support for advanced battery development, which of course Japan has. LG Chem has massive support from the Korean government in terms of a whole research campus was paid for by the Korean government because Korea recognizes that advanced battery technology is a key component of the country’s competitiveness.

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