Phil Baker: Revolting Against the Volt? Fruitless

The Chevy Volt, one of the most innovative cars recently produced in the US, is under attack. Phil Baker tells us what the story is and why the car is becoming the lightning rod for scrutiny and future policies.

One of the very best products I reviewed last year was the Chevy Volt.

I’ve  found it to be one of the most innovative automobiles to come along in years, combining the best of the electric and gasoline-powered cars.

It exhibited an entirely new approach to the electric automobile from a company that had suffered from a lack of innovation over the years. One even famously accused it of having killed the electric car, it was that good. Every element of the car was a vast improvement over former General Motors cars, including the interior and exterior materials, the fit and finish, and handling and comfort.

The Volt has a range of 40 miles on a full battery charge. If you don’t travel more than that each day, you’ll never need to buy gasoline. But if you do drive farther, you can drive indefinitely using gasoline to power its onboard generator. What I also found so exciting about this car was that it was entirely engineered and manufactured in the United States by Americans.

Work on the Volt began nearly a decade ago, years before GM filed for bankruptcy. Stories in Business Week and other magazines chronicled the challenges of its development team. It faced insurmountable odds and frequent setbacks, and had to solve difficult technical problems and create new inventions. The team worked with the backdrop of always wondering whether the product would be killed due to budgetary pressures, especially as Detroit auto sales suffered decline after decline.

Having been a part of engineering teams tasked with developing products that often meant the survival of a company, the story resonated. It reminded me of the wonderful book, Soul of a New Machine, which chronicled the development of one of the early computers and the hero status accorded the development team.

Somehow the Volt team prevailed, and thanks to our government’s rescue of the automotive industry, GM survived to introduce the car in 2011.

When I reviewed the car in San Diego Daily Transcript last year, I said, “It’s an exciting new vehicle on two fronts. First, it’s the most technologically advanced automobile that’s designed to reduce gasoline consumption. And second, it provides a sense of pride in showing that our country can still innovate in the automotive industry, an area where we’ve played catch-up for so many years. All the more commendable considering that the team that worked on the Volt did so under a cloud of uncertainty during the financial crisis that threatened to bankrupt their company.”

Other auto reviewers heaped similar praise on the automobile, several noting its positive effect in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Others selected it as car of the year.

And last month the Chevrolet Volt and its twin, the Opel Ampera, won Europe’s prestigious “Car of the Year” Award. The 59 judges from 23 European nations described the automobile as a true technological step forward, and “a mature product” that is “better suited to consumers’ needs than the conventional electric car.”

Earlier this year, a GM-owned Volt, while being stored in a GM facility, caught on fire three weeks after a laboratory-supervised crash test at that facility. The fire was caused by coolant leaking from the cooling system that came in contact with the battery long after the crash and caused a short.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated and concluded that, “Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles.”

At the time, Chevrolet offered to buy back Volts from any owner and provided loaner cars to Volt owners during the investigation. Chevy’s behavior went far beyond what it was required to do, and demonstrated a huge contrast with Toyota’s abominable handling of its sudden acceleration fiasco.

But Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, was not satisfied with the NHTSA and GM investigations, and his committee recently held hearings where it questioned whether NHTSA and GM were conspiring together to hush up the Volt’s fire. Issa implied that GM and NHTSA hid the Volt battery defect to avoid embarrassment for GM’s new car, a claim that runs counter to all evidence presented. And in an appearance on MSNBC, Darrell Issa compared subsidies for Chevrolet’s electric car to the Iran-Contra scandal.

Issa’s subcommittee’s staff report, sarcastically titled, “Government Motors: A Preliminary Report on the Effects of Bailouts and Politics on the Obama Administration’s Ability to Protect American Consumers,” states that the administration has provided taxpayer subsidies to produce the Volt and offered buyers of the Volt a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 per vehicle.

The implication of the report was that because GM was building the car, and GM was subsidized by the government’s bailout, NHTSA was somehow protecting the Volt, the showcase of the new GM. In fact, contrary to this “fact-finding” report, the $7,500 tax credit was passed by the 2007-2008 Congress under the Bush administration, in the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008.

So here we have elected officials doing their best to trash one of the most innovative products this country has produced, all in the name of politics.

I’ve written often about our difficulty in competing with China. One of the reasons is because the Chinese government heavily invests to strengthen important consumer industries. To compete with China, we need a government policy that builds up industries that are strategic.

Autoweek, an auto pub I respect greatly, said it best:

Message to politicians: Your childlike behavior is numbing, and it’s beginning to piss off all of America. The greatest problem with this particular witch-hunt is the message it sends to innovators in the United States, not to mention competitors abroad, when the crown jewel of a resurgent General Motors is attacked merely as a political salvo.

Fortunately, some are pushing back. Lee Spieckerman, CEO of the conservative Spieckerman Media, attacks what she calls the the myths against the Volt. He also notes that the Volt was not a creation of the Obama administration, it began two years earlier.

One would think we would all welcome and support innovative products and technologies that advance our country’s capabilities and reduce the use of oil. Apparently, some in politics would rather twist the truth in order to point blame on the current administration. Not only is this shameful, but it also undermines the effort to create American jobs. It’s behavior we’d expect more from our economic enemies than from those that we elect to represent us.

Photo credit: NAParish