What brought down the Corleone family? Drugs, of course: It was a new, dangerous game, and the Godfather never could wrap his head around it.
What brought down the Detroit auto industry? Well, a lot of things, but chief among them was another new, dangerous game these companies just couldn’t wrap their heads around: fuel efficiency.
The Corleones were forced to accept that drug trafficking was the hot new thing, and they would have to cut peripheral deals at the very least to survive. Similarly, it seems the Detroit Three have finally come to understand that fuel efficiency and green technology, as much as those evils sicken them, are things in which they, too, will have to dabble. But the green game isn’t for everyone, and even today, Detroit auto executives keep making it all too obvious that they’re in way over their heads.
Somehow mastering the urge to tout a new 19-mpg Suburban “hybrid” as America’s ticket to energy independence, General Motors turned some heads last week by unveiling the production Chevy Volt. While talk of the Volt has been swirling for nearly two years (GM first unveiled the Volt as a concept at the North American International Auto Show in January of last year), last week’s event got the whole country’s attention. People are suddenly excited to find GM leading the way to a real-life plug-in electric car.
I should note that the Volt is not really an electric car; it can go 40 miles on a charge, but then uses a combustion engine to recharge the battery, which technically makes it a hybrid. Nevertheless, GM does say that it is further along on the electric car track than any other company, and while the Volt won’t be released until late 2010, it will likely be the first mass-market plug-in electric on the road.
That’s cause to celebrate, and that’s just what Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman of global product development, has been doing in recent days. Making a stop on “The Colbert Report” last week, Lutz yucked it up with Stephen Colbert, taking advantage of the host’s deadpan invitation to say some dumb things. (Among them, Lutz said that the Volt is a hot car that will get you women, but they’ll be the “no make-up, environmental” type.) All the while, Lutz was apparently oblivious to the fact that the joke was on him. He probably knew that Colbert’s bombastically conservative swagger is an act, but then again, you shouldn’t expect too much from the guy that infamously once called global warming “a total crock of shit.”
Lutz later wrote on his blog that the Colbert interview was unlike any other experience he has ever had in his career. He sounded downright giddy about the results he expects to come from that interview: “Those facts are now known to the huge Colbert Nation, which consists primarily of millions of educated, successful young people, including many who are not generally predisposed to consider GM cars.”
Yes Bob, but what they saw from you is not likely to please them.
In a way, Lutz is everything that’s wrong with the American auto industry. He’s a smart guy, I’m sure, but those smarts were honed in an entirely different world and are no good today. For example, he said that he actually does “accept that the planet is heated” but that, like “many noted scientists,” he does not believe the carbon dioxide “theory.” For a man of his stature to sit there and say something that absurd is about as painful as watching a grandparent struggling to figure out how to send an e-mail. And it certainly isn’t winning him any points in the demographic GM hoped to reach.
What does GM hope to accomplish with people like Lutz denigrating environmentalists and snickering about mawkish tree-huggers? Aren’t these the people most eager to buy an electric car? Or is Lutz really laboring under the delusion that the Volt will sell just because it’s a cool car your average gear head might buy and subsequently “pimp”?
GM’s effort to make the Volt as mainstream a car as possible is commendable, and the heat the company has taken for ditching the EV1 is largely unfair. However, it’s clear that the automaker still isn’t comfortable with this game it’s suddenly forced to play. The Corleones, too, thought they could survive by staying on the periphery, by feigning to play while staying away. But that just doesn’t work.
GM has to make up its mind: Is it ready to go green or not? You can’t have it both ways. Remember how poor Fredo found that out the hard way?
Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.