We had a great time with Bob Lutz and his posse last night. The dinner was supposed to last an hour and a half, but somehow with all the great wine and food it ran over three hours. And Bob talked pretty much the whole time. Let's get the Volt stuff out of the way first. Yes, GM is still on track for November 2010. They are expecting to build and sell 10,000 in 2011 and 60,000 in 2012. From there it's anyone's guess. In terms of price they are aiming to bring the Volt in under $40k, but are hoping that tax credits will make it easier for people to afford.
There was a lot of talk about gas prices. Bob actually seems pretty content with the current high gas prices--he just thinks they ramped up a bit quickly. Bob claims to have lobbied the folks in DC for gas taxes starting in the 70s, but says that politicians had always balked at the idea. So US auto manufacturers were pretty much stuck selling gas-guzzling SUVs. Or something like that. But given GM's new direction, Bob said that cheap gas would actually be a bad thing for them at this point. With the new CAFE standards kicking in, a return to cheap gas would put them "at war" with their customers by forcing GM to produce small, efficient cars that consumers wouldn't want. GM is fully committed to the Volt and is intent on "taking the vehicle out of the environmental debate." Continue reading...
Bob is pretty excited about the whole electric thing. He pulled out his Blackberry and showed me the new Vectrix electric scooter he had recently purchased. It was parked in his garage, right in front of a stunning red 1955 Chrysler 300 (Bob is definitely still a Mopar guy).
We talked about whether or not there might be an electric Cadillac. The GM guys all seemed to think it would make a lot of sense for the brand, which has focused so much on leading technology in recent years. However, Bob ruled out the idea of an electric RWD muscle car. He sees electric vehicles as primarily FWD.
Bob still is a great believer in ethanol, and told me to look into a company named Coskata, who he thinks has the right idea. But he doesn't think it's gonna happen in this country, for a variety of reasons. And Bob thinks that diesel is doomed over here--it's just too complicated and expensive to get diesel cars to pass to our strict emission regulations.
A recurring theme of the evening was that the US government has really screwed up things for the auto industry--they didn't tax gas enough, and as a result we have crummy roads and no transportation infrastruture. And now with the safety standards and CAFE regulations the automakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I think Bob has a point. How can you make a truly fuel-efficient vehicle when safety standards basically call for an armored vehicle with twenty airbags? Bob thinks that there is no way will we ever see a return of cheap, light-weight econoboxes like the Geo Metro, Honda CRX, etc.
So then I brought out some of your questions. Darvell asked what Bob recommends for students wanting to get into the automotive industry. Bob said to study electrical engineering--that it's all about battery technology now. Garret asked why so many modern automakers are not offering manual transmissions. Bob said that there was little demand, and again, it was harder to get these cars to pass the emission regulations (modern automatics can be easily programed to time their shift points just right). And regarding Infinitespecter's question, "why can't Detroit design something original on its own?" Bob said he thinks the Camaro, HHR and even the Solstice/Sky are uniquely American, but that he sees a "global convergence of taste." He sees the new Malibu as an expression of this new global taste.
Toward the end I asked Bob what he thought of Chrysler's decision to axe the Viper (a car which Bob helped bring to market when he was at Chrysler). He said that Chrysler is losing a lot of money on the vehicle, and that if it was up to him he'd probably do the same thing.
There was a lot more to the our evening, so stay tuned for John and Jen's version of the dinner in the next day or two.