Best of Bob Lutz: Farewell to the Chevy Volt Frontman


Bob Lutz — the General Motors (s GM) 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.


Ivan Morse

Uh? or I prefer “Hello” Mr Shorter, Sorry for late reply, but this issue is tedious for me! Firstly, I assume that you are not aligned with any of the companies mentioned here:- GM, ECD Ovionics, COBASYS, A123 Systems, Texaco, Chevron, etc, and have nothing to gain from your defence of these enterprises. (Please give disclosure.)
The fact that Texaco hounded GM to give-up on alternate-fuelled vehicles and sell ECD Ovonics to them was not because Texaco wanted to promote electric vehicles, but because they saw them as a threat to their lucrative industry. If you don’t believe in a Big Oil conspiracy, you are naive. Tex were so blatant in their intentions that they even re-named their new “prize” CO ntrolled BA ttery SYS tems (COBASYS) to flagrantly emphasise their intentions to CONTROL and not PROMOTE this company!! You are right that COBASYS has the NiMh cells and A123 has LiLon cells, I did not state differently, except the since A123 is now the ONLY marketing outlet for both companies and COBASYS cannot sell direct, there seems to be suspiciously no mass auto sales allowed for COBASYS higher-tech product!! This was the main reason that GM had to buy their VOLT batteries from LG in Korea, instead of giving jobs to Americans! If you think that the LiLon batteries are superior to the NiMh batteries, why did the beloved NiMh equipped EV1 have three times the range of Wagonner & Lutz’s bail-out LiLon VOLT? This situation has forced GM to add an on-board generator to the Volt, just to compete, (and maybe also satisfy Big Oil requirements to get the superior American COBASYS NiMh batteries in future?) Truth is, if it wasn’t for Toyota, which is beyond the influence of Big Oil, we would still not have forced ANY other electric or hybrid vehicles to be offered in North America today. All this may be just too late, because the US auto industry has already jeapordized itself with greed, arrogance and collusion! Ivan Morse

Dick Martin Shorter

Uh, Mr. Morse, A123 cells are lithium ion cells, not NiMH, which would be the technology that ECD Ovonics (Cobasys) owns the patents on. So, I don’t see how the Cobasys partnering would produce the effects you are claiming…. Cobasys is not willing to build or sell small orders for their large-format NiMH batteries, but to suggest that A123 would deliberately cut their own throats and refuse to sell into the automotive EV market seems extraordinarily far fetched.

And the tech is different, as well – NiMH is good high-density storage that has to be finagled to get high currents safely, so it’s a good fit with hybrids that don’t depend exclusively on electric for their loads. Li(nano)PO4 is lower energy density, but handles the high-current charge and discharge cycles of a full EV much better than NiMH, and with more inherent safety, and far better lifetimes at the charge and discharge rates required by an EV.

I don’t see the Big Oil conspiracy here, unless you can come up with some supporting evidence…

Ivan Morse

Re Best of Bob Lutz, Cevy Volt Frontman Retiring—
Mr Lutz did not tell the whole story about using low-tech Korean Lithium-ion batteries for the Volt instead of A123Systems’ advanced Nickel-Metal-Hydride batteries. When Chevy was developing the EV1 it bought controlling interest in ECD Ovinics NiMH battery technology in 1994. After it scrapped the EV1’s GM sold its stake in ECD to Big Oil (Texaco) in 2001. In 2003 Texaco sold 50% of ECD to Chevron and they changed its name to Cobasys. As I understand it Cobasys controls the market in commercial NiMH batteries and only allows their use in hybrid vehicles with internal combustion engines. A123Systems is partnered with Cobasys and won’t provide NiMH batteries for the Volt, as it is totally electric! Therefore GM is now unable to get the batteries it helped develop, as Big Oil is blocking their use in electric-only vehicles! This is why the Volt has a range of only 40 miles per charge, and is totally impractical for commuting, vs the original EV1’s range of 150 miles per charge.

kerry bradshaw

I share Lutz’s dislike for Better Place, which I’ve renamed “Better Con.” Any major advance in battery recharging capabilities immediately renders Better Place obsolete. The fact that it can recharge means nothing – regular gas stations will transition over to
recharging stations, one pump at a time, as business and demand dictates. Better Place is a monopolistic endeavor, the ONLY reason Agassi is involved (forget the green nonsense – that’s for the goobers). The major problem with batteries isn’t simply that tehy can’t be recharged quickly enough – they are, among other things, too expensive, something that Better Place actually exacerbates, since any traveler must be backed up by 4, 5 or 6 battery packs in reserve for each full day’s travel. And those batteries have to be in the right location. I’m not interested in gettting into a relationship with a monoploy. I wouldn’t touch Better Place with a ten foot pole.

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