Chicago Auto Show: Is GM Going Environmental?

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The automobile giant General Motors is best known for its muscle cars and trucks, its tank-sized Hummers and — to devout environmentalists — for killing the electric car. So when GM hired the McGinn Group, a trend-spotting public relations firm in Washington D.C., to extend the olive branch toward environmental bloggers and wine and dine them at auto shows around the country, we at Worldchanging couldn’t help but pull over to the curb, shift into neutral and ask, ‘What’s going on?’

Is General Motors going environmental, or is the world’s largest automaker just trying to convince us it’s thinking green?

The less accusatory question we asked almost every GM executive we met at the Chicago Auto Show last week was whether GM is trying to steer the market toward the kinds of cars it wants to build in the future, or whether the auto corporation, which has gained a reputation in the past for avoiding risk, will continue to lean back on its heels and react to market demand.

The answer was both, and though GM is making important strides forward with the Volt electric car, not everything this company is doing is worldchanging.

One of the more forthright responses came from Vice Chairman of Product Development and Chairman of GM North America Bob Lutz, who, at 74 years old, admittedly has to adapt to the demands of the 21st century automaker on the fly.

“I think you have to do both, since we are a for-profit business. You can’t just be producing Corvettes or conventional sedans, which, if we’re lucky, will get 25 miles per gallon on the highway and 18 in the city. The whole market is schizophrenic. There are people who are extremely efficiency-oriented, and there are people who say, ‘Screw that, at $2 a gallon I’m going to get myself a 500-pound horsepower.’ We have to cater to both markets.”

I couldn’t let Lutz off the hook without asking him about the Hummer — the prime example of what car companies should NOT be building today as we combat global warming and our addiction to oil. If GM really is thinking green, producing electric cars and inviting green bloggers to the showroom floor, why on earth is the Hummer still in production?

“Over time the biggest Hummer will become a smaller and smaller vehicle, until finally people will confuse them with golf carts,” Lutz joked.

Saturn executive Troy Clarke surprised me by downplaying the influence GM has on consumers, even though the company spends billions of dollars on ways to get inside the head of the average American, from glitzy Super Bowl ads (a favorite question of bloggers was which Super Bowl ad executives liked the most!) to banner space in “Second Life.”

“I don’t make grand assumptions on how much we can influence consumer behavior. If I could influence consumer behavior we’d probably sell a lot more cars. But I think there is a dynamic there, and I don’t know if it’s about influence as much as communication. I’m communicating with the customer and the customer is communicating back to me.”

Nevertheless, Clarke does understand that if car culture in this country is going to change, the impetus will have to come from the automotive industry, and that means GM.

“We can’t support growth in the automotive industry if the only fuel source is gasoline,” he admitted. “That’s coming to an end in some point in time. One, we need energy diversity; we need alternative fuels; we need ethanol and biodiesel; we need a handful of solutions that fit in different places in the world, and different costs at different times. So we need energy diversity.

“A power source that is freely distributed around the world is electricity,” he continued, referring to the Volt. “You could make it from wind; you could make it solar; you could make it nuclear; you could make it from water. It goes through wires and you could pick it up wherever you want it. If you look at electricity in terms of cost per unit of energy that can be produced, it is less expensive than combustible fuels.

“You start laying those facts out for people and you say, ‘We need a vision for small, medium cars,’ and we’ll see how far we can stretch it. Those become electric cars over time. You plug it in. Over time the battery technology advances. Maybe it’s a plug-in vehicle that has a range extender, which could be an alternative fuel engine, or a diesel, or even a turbine. The ultimate vision we have is that you put a fuel cell in there, and the architecture packages in perfectly. You could use a much smaller battery because fuel cells have the capability to generate enough electricity.”

And Clarke promises that GM is serious about its investment in the golden boy Chevy Volt — the successor to the ill-fated EV1 electric car, which was leased in California and Arizona in the late 1990s before GM recalled and destroyed each one. Skeptics should know, however, that the Volt is merely a concept car at this point, and it wouldn’t be accessible to consumers until 2010, at the very earliest.

“I believe that the Volt is a step in the right direction for leadership. We don’t want this to be a science project. There’s a lot of thought and market analysis done by opinion leaders and academics. Because this isn’t just a couple guys in a garage with a torch putting stuff together. We got the right people on this inside and outside the industry to help formulate the direction that we’re trying to take.

“Being leaders means more than just selling lots of cars.”

GM executives certainly had their sound bites ready for their enviro blogger guests at the Chicago Auto Show, and in the very least, that means they recognize the need to reach out to eco-conscious Americans, and do it via the newest medium of mass communication. Still, the traditional rhetoric of automobiles making their drivers feel sleek, tough, even masculine, with little regard for fuel efficiency, pervaded the showroom floor.

Even the Volt, with its electric plug that will give you 40 miles on the road after charging for six hours, was unveiled as a sporty car with “great proportions” and looks that are “not very apologetic,” as if we were witnessing a bomber fly off into battle.

Meanwhile, car enthusiasts all around us slapped each other on their backs and shared stories of their favorite GM status vehicles and muscle cars — using language that won’t increase fuel efficiency and won’t reduce our debilitating addiction to oil. Hardly worldchanging.

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