Detroit 3 vary in their electric-vehicle visions
Chrysler said recently that its in-house team of electric car
development engineers had been disbanded and will be folded into the
company's organizational chart.
The announcement comes three months after Chrysler took $70 million in
grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a test fleet of 220
hybrid pickup trucks and minivans. It comes less than a year after
Chrysler built its case for federal aid -- it received $12.5 billion --
by showing flashy designs of electric sports cars, trucks and vans, and
promising 500,000 battery-powered vehicles on the road by 2013.
With a swipe of his wrist, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne cast aside
Chrysler's EV plans -- commenting that batteries aren't ready, the
market is minuscule and "electric vehicles are going to struggle." In
doing so, he followed in the footsteps of other U.S. and European
carmakers that have dismissed the inexorable movement of the auto
industry toward greener more fuel-efficient electric and hybrid cars.
Chrysler is now left with an obligation to put those 220 test hybrids on
the road -- which it says it will honor -- and an anemic effort to
market a Dodge Ram Hybrid, which is to dribble out next year after five
years' worth of promises that the vehicle is coming. In an era when
green is the new black, the breakup of Chrysler's hybrid and electric
car team is a public relations blunder.
General Motors, on the other hand, knows about such blunders -- but has
learned the lesson too well.
After the infamous killing of the EV1 and years of dismissing hybrids as
"making no economic sense," the company is now using its forthcoming
star -- the Chevy Volt -- as a poster child for all things green and
good. GM's Volt program is tremendous and deserves recognition as a
major achievement. Kudos. Yet, the company continues to turn up the
brightness of the klieg lights -- now reaching a blinding level. For
example, GM's recent national Volt advertising campaign -- promising 230
m.p.g. -- does more to obfuscate than to elucidate.
The publicity push is working. The latest example is reports that GM has
given a green light to produce the Cadillac Converj, a slick electric
coupe concept unveiled at the 2009 North American International Auto
Show. As cool as the car looks, the news flash is all about marketing.
"Cadillac needs as much excitement in its portfolio as possible, so I
think it's a good strategy for them," said Rebecca Lindland, director of
auto industry research at IHS Global Insight. Bingo.
It's a great strategy for drawing attention to Cadillac. But if the goal
of the hybrid and electric car movement is to offer low- or
zero-emission transportation and to make a transition to sustainable
personal vehicles, the Cadillac Converj is as wrong as the spelling of
The current luxury hybrids are low sellers. The $70,000 Cadillac
Escalade Hybrid has sold an average of about 180 units per month this year.
Why would a more expensive, less practical two-door Cadillac Converj,
even with great lines and 40 miles of all-electric range -- sell at much
greater numbers? Low production numbers also undermine arguments from
Bob Lutz, marketing chief for GM, that the Converj will help the Volt
program reach economies of scale or defray battery costs.
That doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that Cadillac has not confirmed
the Converj story. Mission accomplished for GM PR. Nothing accomplished
for sustainable mobility.
Wouldn't it be cool if there were a Detroit auto company that saw the
value of electric-drive vehicles (unlike Chrysler), and (unlike GM) was
modestly going about producing common-sense, affordable electric cars
and plug-in hybrids on existing global scalable platforms? Maybe
something like an electric version of a practical mild-mannered Ford
Focus, or a plug-in hybrid variant of a small crossover Escape? No super
fanfare. No rumors of slick, expensive future EVs that may or may not
come. No Hail Mary passes. No bloated promises for handouts from
That's what Ford is doing, again proving that it's moving in the right
direction -- not only for consumer value and profitability, but for the
future of Detroit, the U.S. economy and Planet Earth.