On Sunday, November 14, 2010, George Will launched a withering attack against the Chevy Volt, and by extension, the Obama administration. Inveighing against the Volt, he dubs it a “government brainstorm” and nothing more than “another hybrid” promoted with taxpayer money. Will claims GM “deliberately” duped Americans by touting the Volt as a pure electric vehicle when it is not. He ends by decrying “state capitalism” and equates recent government influence in the automotive industry as “foolishness.”
Will Misrepresents the History and the Technical Prowess of the Volt
First, the creation of the Volt had nothing to do with the Obama administration. In early 2007, back when Time magazine was pondering if newcomer Barack Obama would one day become president, the Chevy Volt was being lauded by the media after its debut at the Detroit Auto Show.
Second, Will’s charge of “deceptive marketing” by GM is unfounded. He states that consumers have been promised a pure electric vehicle, but that GM has produced something else entirely. However, from its inception, the Volt was never intended to be a purely electric vehicle. In Matt Nauman’s 2007 article, he explained that “the Volt relies on batteries and electric motors for nearly all of its propulsion.” GM made it clear from the outset that the Volt would be primarily electric drive.
Will’s rash accusations overlook the brilliance of the Volt’s technology and GM’s adroit read of American consumers.
A New and Potentially Wiser GM
GM learned many lessons from its first foray into electric vehicles in the 90s. However, George Will has probably never seen Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? . In it, Paine re-introduces Americans to the extinct EV1, GM’s American-made, fully-electric vehicle that flaunted the same range and speed as Nissan’s much-hyped Leaf, but did so nearly 15 years earlier.
The Volt is an electric car. As Chevy Volt Vehicle Line Director Tony Posawatz explained to Motor Trend, “the Volt’s 111 kilowatt electric traction motor is always driving the wheels of the car when it is in motion.” GM discovered through testing that the motor became “inefficient” when the engine reached high rpms. Therefore, when the Volt exceeds 70mph, the “planetary gearset” engages and lets the “main traction motor spin at reduced speed.” This means that the motor and generator remain decoupled the majority of the time, unlike a Prius or other hybrids.
These innovations make the Volt highly efficient and much more than a hybrid. It has an all-electric driving range of between 33 and 40 miles which exceeds the daily needs of the average driver (The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that the average driver travels 29 miles per day). Likewise, the Volt’s use of an on-board generator to extend its range to 300 miles allows it to appeal to American consumers who balk at the idea of a limited range vehicle. GM has created an excellent product: a family-sized, extended-range, electric vehicle.
When Bush Policies Ruled GM
Will wants to tie Obama to the Chevy Volt. Like Rush Limbaugh before him who publicly proclaimed his desire for Obama to fail, Will wants the Volt to fail to confirm the righteousness of his ideology. And if the Volt fails, he wants Obama to be the public face of this failure.
However, GM’s troubles predate Obama. GM’s descent into insolvency can be traced to policies implemented by the Bush administration.
After all, long before the government offered GM loan capital to survive the worst economic drought since the Great Depression or offered paltry $7500 tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles, George W. Bush’s economic stimulus plan doled out $100,000 tax credits to small business owners to purchase Hummers and Escalades in 2003. Additionally, the raging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a boon to GM who supplied the military with thousands of fully-loaded pick-up trucks.
GM grew bloated and lethargic from the federal government’s purchase and promotion of the largest vehicles with the highest profit margins. GM’s innovation languished while they pursued short-term profits leaving its competitors to develop less lucrative but increasingly important hybrid and electric vehicle technology.
In December 2008, I traveled to Detroit and visited GM’s headquarters. A small showroom of vehicles revealed just how out of touch GM had become. Dismayed, I moved from vehicle to vehicle, noticing that many of GM’s hybrid vehicles had worse fuel economy than my aging, 3.8 liter V6. Worse yet, a family friend showed me the 12-cylinder speed boat motor that he had been working on for years. While Toyota crafted the Prius and Nissan readied the Leaf, GM busied itself designing gas-guzzling speedboat motors.
Vision Correction for Short-Sighted Corporations
The myopia of American corporations is astounding. How many exchange short-term profits for the livelihood and safety of workers, shareholders, and the public? The guilty parties are a list of familiar acronyms: GM, AIG, BP, WAMU, just to name a few.
The proper role of government in our economy is to offer vision correction for short-sighted corporations who operate like Mr. Magoo stumbling blindly into the future. Today President Obama’s administration offers GM the foresight they desperately needed five years ago when the Bush administration presided over the dismantling of GM’s electric car program. The Volt represents a second chance for America to lead in electric vehicle technology.
Sadly, George Will works diligently to undermine the credibility of America’s only mass-produced electric vehicle while Japanese automakers stand ready to flood the market with literally dozens of cutting-edge, affordable, and efficient fully electric vehicles. “State capitalism” is anything but foolish when it encourages consumers and corporations to act in America’s long-term economic interest.