GM is hoping new carpool incentives and a green focus will boost Volt sales in the Golden State
When General Motors CEO Dan Akerson was in San Francisco last week, I spoke to him about the five-week long suspension of the Chevy Volt production — and why he thinks the re-launch of the new-generation Volt could be a winner in California.
The Golden State accounts for one-in-four sales of the Volt, the plug-in hybrid made by General Motors. The car offers a potential solution to the “range anxiety” hurdle many would-be EV buyers face; but to gain traction against rivals like the Toyota Prius hybrid and the all-electric Nissan Leaf, it still has to surmount its red-hot price and fiery reputation.
Akerson says the new Volt qualifies for California’s HOV lane status and a $1,500 state rebate, thanks to changes in the combustion configuration of the engine. The new Volt will have an additional emissions system fan to reduce tailpipe emissions and Akerson anticipates that the average 36 minutes a day that commuters save by using the carpool lane will deliver an effective “California twist” to the vehicle’s marketability here.
California has a total of 1,400 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes for carpoolers and drivers of zero-emission cars like the Nissan Leaf, and advanced-battery cars like the new Volt. Akerson confirmed that GM’s flagship green car has already begun shipping here in limited quantities and will arrive in other states in the next 30-to-60 days.
To what does Akerson attribute the Volt’s relative popularity in California? The state’s superior EV infrastructure is an important factor. On a recent visit to Silicon Valley he was surprised to see so many charging stations in high-tech company parking lots. “You don’t see that in every city in America,” he said. “It’s forward-looking.”
Akerson also burnished his own green credentials by confessing that yes, he does, “believe” in global warming, and that despite several GM colleagues advising him not to say that in public, he stands by his statement. But to underline his independence, he made a rather startling claim during an earlier Commonwealth Club interview.
“Well, this may surprise you,” he said. “But my underwear doesn’t have GM stamped on it…I am an individual and I do have my own convictions.”
Yes, his own convictions…and his own colorful turns of phrase that create unfortunate images, like this one. Nevertheless, the bold Akerson can be praised for speaking out on climate change, a subject many other CEOs won’t touch with a barge pole. He argues that it’s healthy to have different points of view and perspectives around the table at GM.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Akerson said, as he proceeded to trumpet his company’s green credentials: GM’s recent EPA recognition as a star energy provider; its 60% efficiency improvement in fuel use in the last five years, and the zero emissions of some GM plants powered by landfill methane. He also emphasized that GM was a willing participant in new CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards. “I have grandchildren,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Yet the Volt has plenty of detractors and was beaten out by the Ford Focus as the 2012 most EPA fuel-efficient car in the compact class. Critics of the $40,000 price tag say, “When you look at the finances, it doesn’t make any sense,” and tests by Consumer Reports found a paltry 26-mile battery range, 16 miles shorter than the initial range promoted by GM.
As for GM’s response to AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions legislation that will put a price on carbon? Akerson underlined that, unlike the oil industry which is fighting the law’s implementation, “This is the new GM…rather than sit in a corner and be obstreperous…we are pushing everything on clean energy, energy efficiency.”
Finally, Akerson responded to a question regarding the GM Foundation’s financial support of the Heartland Institute, an Midwestern think tank often charged with spreading misinformation and undermining scientifically proven facts about climate change. Akerson confirmed that as CEO he can’t sit on the (GM) foundation’s board but promised to take another look at it when he’s back in Detroit.
Before Akerson left town with his entourage, I had one last question for the former private equity manager. He is known for calling the rival Toyota Prius a “GeekMobile,” so I had to ask him, does he have a pet name for his own Chevy Volt?
“Yeah the Volt…the greatest car in America,” he demurred; perhaps deciding that one startling visual was enough for one evening in San Francisco.