Best of Rick Wagoner: Farewell to the Volt/Hummer Chief

Rick Wagoner — the 31-year General Motors (s GM) veteran who worked his way up to CEO in 2000, allowed the company to drop its early lead in hybrid technology, pulled the plug on the EV-1 electric car development program, steered the company during an era of SUVs and 16 MPG Hummers and, when gas prices climbed late in his tenure, eventually championed the extended-range electric Chevy Volt concept along with frontman Bob Lutz — has resigned at the request of President Barack Obama’s auto task force. Under Wagoner’s leadership, GM has lost $82 billion over the last four years.

As Chief Operating Officer Frederick Henderson takes the reins at GM, Wagoner will reportedly hit the road with a $20 million retirement package. Here’s a look at what lies in his rear-view mirror:

On Innovation: At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Wagoner delivered the first keynote from a car maker at CES in 41 years. He started with the basics:

The auto industry can no longer rely almost exclusively on oil to supply the world’s future automotive energy requirements.

Wagoner proceeded to describe a mixed bag of solutions being pursued at GM, including hydrogen, ethanol and electric vehicles. “No one solution is going to be best for every part of the world,” he said. The company’s goal? Simple:

[U]se advanced technology to offer a broad range of cleaner and more efficient vehicles, powered by different sources of energy.

On Climate Change: Wagoner had a more palatable way of talking about climate change than Lutz. But tucked into his efforts to smooth over Lutz’s statement last year that global warming is a “total crock” was an expression of doubt about the overwhelming consensus among scientists that humans are contributing to climate change. Quoted in the Detroit News, via CNET:

The data is pretty clear that the temperature on the earth is rising. There’s all sort of debates as to why but we’ve clearly come down on the side it makes sense for us to put our business in a position where we can participate proactively in reducing the amount of (carbon dioxide) emissions.

On Green Car Startups: As if General Motors didn’t have enough to worry about — with its $3.3 billion first-quarter loss and a two-month strike at a parts maker that had cost it $800 million by last May — when Wagoner spoke at a meeting of the Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco. The automaker also had a host of electric-vehicle startups revving to get electric vehicles on the market before the Chevy Volt. Wagoner claimed he wasn’t worried. This is a high-volume, tough game to compete in and GM has a natural advantage by virtue of its experience and its “depth of technology,” he said at the Commonwealth Club meeting, adding:

We plan to win. We welcome the competition, but I expect in ten years were going to be leading the parade.

On the EV-1: Wagoner may not have needed the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” to realize killing GM’s electric car development program was a mistake. But just ahead of the film’s release in 2006, Wagoner told Motor Trend magazine that the move was the decision he most regretted:

Axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids. It didn’t affect profitability, but it did affect image.

On Ethanol and Flex Fuel Vehicles: Also at CES 2008, Wagoner called for more investment in cellulosic ethanol and an increase in E-85 pumps at gas stations, noting GM’s plans to add flex-fuel offerings to 50 percent of its cars by 2012. He said:

It’s increasingly clear that ethanol offers tremendous potential in this regard, over a surprisingly short timeframe.

On Government Aid: In a panel discussion on the economy held in Pittsburgh during the last presidential campaign, Obama asked Wagoner what he could do as president to best help Detroit “pivot” as quickly as possible and start making greener cars. Wagoner listed three things: research assistance for new technologies, incentives and rebates for consumers, and help converting manufacturing plants. Translation: Show me the money.

On YouTube: As the global economy headed into a tailspin last fall, GM posted a series of videos with its execs on YouTube called “The Case for GM.” The company said it was reaching out for constructive criticism and two-way communication. Huh. Then why (as our friends over at NewTeeVee so astutely pointed out) did GM disable comments on its videos? From NewTeeVee:

In his video Wagoner talks about what GM is doing in the midst of high oil prices, financial market crisis, and a weak economy. Wagoner’s remarks are the standard stuff a CEO would say — we’re looking to the future, blah blah blah. But at the end Wagoner invites people to leave comments (he’s “anxious” for them) and then says he’ll read them all. Easy to do when no one can post one.

On GM’s Future: In an email message posted this morning on GM’s web site, Wagoner had characteristically optimistic parting words for his former employees:

GM is a great company with a storied history. Ignore the doubters because I know it is also a company with a great future.