DETROIT — General Motors already has five hybrid vehicles on the road, but it is banking its future on a radical departure onto the green road: By 2010, the automaker hopes to have a plug-in electric passenger car in customers’ driveways.
“I love delivering the unexpected. And right now, the unexpected is a General Motors vehicle that uses no fuel,” said Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman of product development, who introduced the Chevrolet Volt concept car to enormous attention in January at the North American International Automotive Show in Detroit.
For Lutz, who was brought out of retirement six years ago to rethink GM’s product line, the Volt is quite a turnaround. Better known as the father of the high-powered gas-guzzling Dodge Viper, Lutz, 75, once dismissed Toyota’s gas-electric hybrid Prius as a publicity stunt.
But now U.S. automakers, who just five years ago were pushing behemoths like the Hummer, find themselves racing to catch up with Japan to put fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly “green” cars on the road. Today, 90 percent of all hybrids sold in the United States are Japanese, and half of them are Priuses.
In response, GM has cut more than $7 billion in annual costs, shed more than 34,000 hourly workers and rolled out more than 20 new models in the last two years in an attempt to regain sales lost to Asian competitors.
“This rapid shift in demand for cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars comes at a time when the U.S. auto companies are facing the fight for their survival,” said John A. Casesa, managing partner of the Casesa Shapiro Group, a leading consultant to the auto industry.
GM’s eggs not all in one (hybrid) basket
GM is far from abandoning the gas-electric hybrid format model popularized by the Prius. It has five hybrid models in production now, all of them pickup trucks or SUVs, and just last month, it announced at its annual shareholders meeting that it would introduce four more models this year.
Instead, the Volt, getting what GM promises will be the equivalent of 150 miles per gallon or more, is a beacon for the near future.
What makes the Volt different — and what could delay its introduction into the next decade — is a “flex” engine that can be recharged by plugging the car into a standard wall outlet for about six hours, unlike today’s hybrids, which recharge their batteries by generating energy during braking.
Because the Volt will also be able to use a small gasoline engine to recharge its batteries, it’s not completely accurate to call it an all-electric car. But that’s all the gasoline can be used for. You don’t have to use it, and it couldn’t run the car anyway.
The hurdle is the battery itself. Lithium-ion batteries, like those used in cell phones, can run much farther between charges than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the Prius and similar vehicles.
But the Volt will need at least a 400-pound battery, which hasn’t yet been developed. And, besides, some lithium-ions can suffer what GM euphemistically calls “thermal runaway” — that is, they have an unfortunate tendency to explode.
GM hopes to solve that problem in time to sell 1,000 Volts by 2010 to establish the market, projecting that it could then turn a profit by selling 1 million more by 2015.
Will Ford get there first?
But Sierra Club activists point to GM’s abandonment of the EV-1 electric car a decade ago, a decision that gave the company headaches when it was targeted in the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” They say they will believe the Volt when they see it.
And other automakers give the Volt the same “publicity stunt” label Lutz once gave the Prius.
“The challenge I have in my job is trying to predict the future maybe 30, 40, 50 years from now and looking into a crystal ball that isn’t all that clear,” Sue Cischke, Ford Motor Co.’s senior vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said in an interview.
Ford is also in the plug-in game and could get to the finish line first. It is already testing two plug-in hybrids, Cischke told the Chicago Tribune, and it expects to deliver the first road-ready vehicles for testing in California by 2009.
Ford may or may not be closer to putting a plug-in on the road, but it is the Volt that is getting the attention, thanks to the splashy debut the sleek, futuristic-looking five-passenger sedan made at the Detroit auto show last winter. The company is moving ahead with developing the rest of car while it seeks the right battery, so it can move quickly once that problem is solved.
“I’m convinced we can beat the Japanese,” Lutz said. “And I think we’re demonstrating with the new vehicles that we can do it.”
Kevin Tibbles is a correspondent for NBC News. Alex Johnson is a reporter for MSNBC.com.