AKA the "Short Circuit"
Chevrolet Volt: The high-tech car that will save Michigan?
Talk about expectations. The Chevrolet Volt, General Motor's extended
range electric car, can't just make some modest profits for General Motors.
Now it's expected to save the state of Michigan, says the Associated
Press. "The Volt is crucial. So much depends on this car. It cannot
fail," the story states.
Yikes. No pressure, here. The car is considered so important because
Michigan isn't content with just making cars anymore. Everyone does
that. Now it wants to be a high-tech center.
"Detroit," Mike Smith, head of the Reuther Library, is quoted by the AP
as saying. It "has two choices: Remake itself. Or die on the vine." He
pauses. "We HAVE to reinvent ourselves."
Volt goes on sale in December, if GM's schedule holds. Final pricing
hasn't been released, but those who have driven it, including Test
Drive's James R. Healey, liked it.
GM's Chevy Volt
Will the Volt recharge GM and US auto industry?
He stands all day, bent over noisy machines, cutting giant sheets of
steel and feeding them into monster-sized presses so powerful the
concrete floor rumbles beneath his size-16 feet.
This is how Steve Prucnell builds cars. In 22 years, the parts haven't
changed much. A car's a car.
But then another project came along, something totally different.
After decades of building everything from Corvettes to Saturns to
Silverados,-- Prucnell took a giant leap into the future, working on
early models of the Chevy Volt, General Motors' new electric car. It's a
high-risk, high-profile venture and Prucnell is understandably nervous.
Maybe it's the 13 foreclosure signs that popped up on his street. Or
turning 50 in a struggling industry. Or working for a company that
needed a $52-billion loan from the U.S. Treasury to stay alive. Whatever
the reason, Prucnell is keeping his fingers crossed, hoping America is
ready for a new kind of love affair -- battery included.
The Volt could help usher in a new generation of electric cars, but
there's more at stake here than a technological breakthrough: The fate
of GM and its workers. The future of a beleaguered state. And, maybe, in
some larger sense, the image of all U.S. autoworkers, eager to prove
they have what it takes to compete on the global stage.
The moment of truth is coming, and Steve Prucnell feels the pressure.
"If this doesn't fly, what's left for GM?" he asks, taking a break from
work at the GM Tech Center. "Wall Street is going to say, 'We knew they
couldn't dig themselves out of the hole."'
There was, Prucnell says, a different vibe building the Volt's test
models. It wasn't just the intense scrutiny from above. It was the
anxiety down below, on the shop floor.
"I don't want to say that we worked harder on this," Prucnell says. "I
think we worked a lot smarter. I mean everybody was on their 'A' game.
... It was, 'We want to make sure we're perfect."'
"We know the Volt is the last hurrah for GM," he adds. "It's either do
Roam the state of Michigan, and you will hear the same insistent optimism:
The Volt is crucial. So much depends on this car. It cannot fail.
This is a state that talks about becoming more than an auto capital, but
cars have been its identity. It's the place where Henry Ford's name
graces a college and hospital; where Pontiac was an Indian warrior and
then a town before gaining fame as a car.
So when the car industry tanks, the crisis is financial, personal and
"Detroit," declares Mike Smith, head of the Reuther Library, "has two
choices: Remake itself. Or die on the vine. We HAVE to reinvent ourselves."
So what can a single car -- one touted as revolutionary but still
untested by the public -- mean in a state that has hemorrhaged jobs,
leaving some cities with Hoover-like jobless rates edging toward 30 percent?
Maybe a lot, according to Smith.
"If you're going to have an electric car and if the Volt turns out to be
the leader of the pack, think what that means in sales, prestige, in
reputation," he says. "This one is symbolic in the sense that it's going
to speak to the prowess of the American auto industry -- and GM itself."
And the spotlight will be white-hot.
"The Volt," he says, "is going to be the most watched production in the
history of autos."
Teri Quigley, the 22-year GM veteran who manages the sprawling
Detroit-Hamtramck plant where the Volt will roll off the line, can
already feel the heat.
"We have to execute flawlessly," she says. "A lot of pressure? Yeah. ...
We've got one chance to do this right. My work force has heard me say
this more than once: The world is really going to be watching."
GM is spending $336 million to prepare the factory, so it can build
Volts on the same line as the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne.
The Volt, she says, could help restore luster to American cars -- and
"The whole view of what Detroit is like, what the auto industry is like
-- we have a unique opportunity to change that tarnished image," she
says. "I'd like to change people's minds about what we do here."
Initially, the Volt will be available only in Michigan, California and
Washington, D.C. GM won't reveal the price tag, though it's believed to
be about $35,000 -- not taking into account a $7,500 tax credit.
The car will have a 400-pound T-shaped lithium ion battery that gives it
a range of up to 40 miles on one charge. After that, a small gas-powered
engine will kick in to generate electricity to power the car about 300
miles. The battery can be recharged by plugging it into an electrical
GM is pouring $700 million into eight operations that will produce the
car. The dollars and work will be spread out: Warren. Hamtramck. Bay
City. Grand Blanc. Brownstown Township. And Detroit and Flint, two
cities that are the walking wounded of the cataclysm that has engulfed
The state has lost 860,000 jobs in a decade, the majority since 2007.
There have been some modest signs of improvement for U.S. automakers; GM
recently announced its first quarterly profit in nearly three years.
Even so, the auto industry will never again generate one in six U.S.
jobs, says Smith, the historian. Robots, automation and foreign
competition have changed that.
And yet ... silver linings can be found in small clouds.
"People in this area are looking for anything to say Michigan and the
car industry can make it," he says. "That's the hope factor that drives
a lot of us in Detroit. What if there are suddenly orders for 100,000
Volts? Now we're talking."
Dayne Walling is accustomed to looking for silver linings; he's mayor of
These days, he has 230 million reasons to be optimistic -- the amount GM
is investing in Volt projects in Flint. Most will go to renovate a plant
where about 200 workers will build a 1.4-liter engine for the Volt and
Chevy Cruze compact.
A few hundred jobs, though, won't reverse the devastation in a city
where more than one in four people are unemployed, thousands of homes
stand shuttered and once vibrant factories are empty concrete shells.
Still, Walling, is looking for a meaningful way to remain positive.
"You can bemoan the glass that's half-empty or you can embrace the glass
that's half-full," says the boyish-looking, 36-year-old mayor. "We're
part of next generation of GM -- and that demonstrates we're part of its
future, not its past."
The past did have moments of glory. In the 1950s and '60s, Flint bustled
with 80,000 workers streaming into GM factories, creating traffic jams,
backing up expressway exits.
A generation later, there were the massive layoffs depicted in Flint
native Michael Moore's scathing documentary "Roger and Me," that took
aim at Roger Smith, then GM's CEO.
For the record, Walling admits he liked "Roger and Me" -- an attitude he
says isn't widely shared in Flint.
"it was really funny and tragic," he says. "I took it as a challenge ...
to work against the odds and not just promote a better image but make
this a more prosperous community."
Twenty years later, the job is even harder.
But here comes the Volt.
"It's the beginning," Walling says, "of a long transition from a Rust
Belt city to one that's more green, has more technology and is more
relevant to the 21st century."
Kris Johns, an auto plant electrician, is making that transition himself.
He started as a young man at Flint. Now, 34 years later, he's part of
the Volt engine launch team.
"It's savior for us," he says, simply.
At 55, Johns could retire with a full pension, but he still wants to work.
GM has provided him a good life. He bought his first house, for
instance, at 23. He built a 4,100-square-foot home, helped his three
kids through college, bought a truck, an 18-foot boat and a 28-foot
"Working around here you were the rich guys," Johns says. "We were
well-paid, for blue-collar workers. We will not deny that. But we worked
hard, too. We gave them their money's worth."
Johns knows autoworkers and GM have been bad-mouthed over the years;
some of it, he feels has been unfair, but some justified.
"We've taken a pretty good beating. We developed a reputation for poor
quality. We put out junk," he says, referring to some cars in the late
'70s and early '80s. "People recognized it. It's taken awhile to get the
An hour's drive away, Steve Prucnell agrees.
"I think their thinking was, 'Hey, we're No. 1. We're never going to be
knocked off," he says, referring to the '80s. "Toyota kicked our butt."
Prucnell stops to make a point. "That's just Steve's opinion," he says.
The result wasn't pretty. When Prucnell started worked on the Volt last
year, GM was bankrupt. A federal rescue was in question. And money was
so tight, he says, workers scrimped on paper towels and wore their
industrial gloves until they were tattered.
"Even I had my doubts GM would have been here in 2010 -- and I'm a
positive person. ... I thought, 'What am I going to do?"' Prucnell
recalls. "Is a 50-year-old guy marketable? Not reallllly."
Prucnell has moved on to a new project. Some days, he sees Volts
cruising around the tech center lot.
"There's going to be a feeling of pride when it's running off the line,"
he says. "We know it's going to be right."
George McGregor, president of UAW Local 22 in Detroit, is more measured
in his optimism.
The Volt, he says, will put his workers on the ground floor of a new
enterprise and hopefully provide job security.
"Do I want it to work? Most definitely. MOST definitely. Now, do I have
some reservations about battery cars? Definitely." McGregor lets loose a
throaty laugh. "Definitely."
McGregor came to Detroit from Memphis in the late 1960s, fresh out of
Vietnam. It was an era when a sturdy back and a willingness to work were
enough to land an auto job -- and a ticket to the middle class.
Now, 42 years later, McGregor, a 64-year-old grandfather with a halo of
Brillo-like silver hair, presides over a dwindling auto empire. His
local has shrunk from 6,000 members in the 1980s to 1,500 today.
So the Volt is mighty welcome. "We're blessed to have it," McGregor says
in his raspy voice.
But he knows old habits die hard.
"Americans love power," he says. "Fast cars. You understand? They LOOVVE
large cars. Small cars, efficient cars? We're being forced into that
now. If ... gas was reasonable, it would be SUVs and large cars."
McGregor figures electric cars are part of the future. Still, one
question gnaws at him.
"Is this what the public really wants?" he asks, as if seeking reassurance.
"Hopefully," he says softly. "Hopefully."
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