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Q&A: Bob Lutz charges up on the Volt

GM Executive Bob Lutz is known for his frank perspective on what the company has done — both good and bad — as well as what it needs to do in order to be successful. In a discussion with he weighs in on the Chevrolet Volt electric car concept and other alternative-fuel technology.
The Chevrolet Volt electric car concept is a ‘radical departure’ for GM says executive Bob Lutz.
The Chevrolet Volt electric car concept is a ‘radical departure’ for GM says executive Bob Lutz.Chevrolet
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Bob Lutz, General Motors’ vice chairman of global product development, is known for his frank perspective on what the company has done — both good and bad — as well as what it needs to do in order to be successful. Lutz sat down with a small group of journalists for an extended roundtable discussion at the Detroit auto show. Here he weighs in on the Chevrolet Volt electric car concept and other alternative-fuel technology: You mentioned in the press conference that the Volt excites you the most of any project you’ve worked on. Why?

Bob Lutz: Because my whole career I’ve liked to do the contrarian thing at a certain stage of a company’s life. When the whole world was saying Chrysler was going out of business, that we had lost the ability to do anything besides the K Car and couldn’t do a rear-wheel-drive car, I said, “Why don’t we not only do a RWD car, but the most powerful and most expensive American RWD car ever?” — which became the Viper. The Pontiac Solstice was the same thing. Who thought GM could come up with such a great-looking convertible at such a low price? The Volt is another in that series. It’s a radical departure for GM, and it’s exciting because it’s not a sure thing — there’s a possibility of failure here. I’d put the risk rate at 10 percent. It’ll keep me around for another three or four years, just to see how it turns out. What could go wrong with the Volt?

Bob Lutz: Something related to batteries. When companies combine hundreds of battery cells — we never say “fire” at GM — it’s a thermal event. So we could experience thermal events, and obviously we’ll work on various safety and cooling solutions, but it might get too complex and might get too expensive. Or the battery companies just might come back to us and say that we can do 20 miles, but we can’t do 40. We would consider that a failure. (Editor’s note: GM intends to utilize a battery that could power the car unassisted by a combustion engine for 40 miles.) Did the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car have an impact on when and why GM is unveiling the Volt electric car concept?

Bob Lutz: I personally did not see the movie. I continue to believe the allegations made in the movie were patently ridiculous. I don’t think the effects of the fanatical fans of the EV1 [an electric car that GM leased on a limited basis and then scrapped several years ago] had much of an impact on us. We were looking at the fuel cell, which has the same architecture [as the Volt], and told ourselves, “Well, a fuel cell is going to take at least five or six years to develop, and we’re still wrestling with the cost. But we have electric vehicles, so why don’t we just use a gasoline engine to extend its range?” GM actually showed a similar concept in the early ’80s, so the idea of having an electric vehicle with an auxiliary engine as a charging engine is not fundamentally new. Where GM’s intellectual property comes in is that we have developed a great deal of expertise in the electronic controls of getting these systems to work together — from regenerative braking to an internal combustion engine that comes on to charge the battery back up. Why not do the Volt three years ago, when the EV1 was cancelled?

Bob Lutz: The reason we’re working on the Volt now is that lithium ion batteries have made huge progress in the last three years. One of the companies we’re working with has very big lithium ion batteries it uses in power tools, and we’re working with that company, A123 in Massachusetts. We want these batteries to be able to recharge for 4,000 cycles and to last for 10 years. The 4,000 cycles is a tough requirement, but the battery companies think it’s achievable. And lithium ion is a disposable material, whereas nickel metal [used in current NiMH batteries] is not. Is the Volt a so-called “series hybrid,” where only electricity drives the wheels even though there’s a combustion engine on board?

Bob Lutz: Technically, it is a series hybrid, but we’ve gotten away from that phrasing. I’ve had countless arguments about this with some of our scientists. They kept showing me these charts where it’ll run on electricity for 10 minutes, and then on the combustion engine for 10, and switch back and forth. And I asked, “Why?” They said it’s the most efficient. So I said, “But that’s not what this vehicle is about, it’s about using little or no fuel for the majority of one’s commute.” They said, “But that’s not the most efficient way to use fuel over 600 miles.” I said, “Who cares? What’s not fuel efficient about not using fuel?” The thing about a conventional hybrid is that it has a full-electric drivetrain, transmission, engine and it’s much more complicated. This one gets rid of the automatic transmission, torque converter and is just much simpler. That’s not to say that regular hybrids are not worthy of research. In some uses, like full-size SUVs, two-mode hybrids still make the most sense. Is the Volt simply a technology challenge to Toyota, whose gas/electric Prius continues to dominate, at least in terms of public awareness?

Bob Lutz: Well we wouldn’t do it only for that reason. We couldn’t take the risk of doing this merely as a PR exercise. We debated whether we should show the vehicle, because it is still early in the development process. And we decided, "yes we can," if we say that we’re working on technologies that are still being developed. Conventional fuel-saving technologies have about run their course. We have multi-cam engines, low-friction engines, displacement on demand systems, cam phasing, accessories decoupled from the engine. Then we have multi-speed transmissions — first three, then four, five. Now Mercedes has seven, Lexus has eight, who’ll say nine? So all of the low-hanging fruit is gone. From now on, to get improved fuel economy, it’ll cost us more and more money for half a percent more fuel economy. And what about low-sulfur “clean” diesel technology?

Bob Lutz: Yes, with diesel there’s a 20 percent fuel economy improvement. There’s also a 20 percent increase in cost. And with the tough U.S. Bin 5 emissions requirements, it’s another 25 percent cost penalty, for an overall 45 percent cost increase for a 20 percent fuel improvement.