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Time’s Running Out for Lutz

Car czar couldn’t see waiting out the recession.

by on Mar.04, 2009

Bob Lutz: 77 is old enough.

Bob Lutz: 77 is old enough.

“The industry may need five years to recover,” says General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, giving his first hint as to why he suddenly decided to retire, last month, after a nearly half-century in the auto industry. “I did the math,” says the 77-year-old executive, “and decided 82 was a little old to be dealing with these problems.

Lutz’s upcoming departure – he leaves his post as “car czar” the end of this month, though the septuagenarian continues in a consultant’s role through the rest of the year – leaves a number of questions about GM’s future. He has been the company’s most active and visible proponent for the development of world-class product. Whether his successor, powertrain chief Tom Stephens, can and will remain such a vociferous auto activist remains to be seen.

Lutz put in a brief appearance, this week, at the Geneva Motor Show, which he recalled was the first show he attended as a car-crazy youngster. While he used this trip to check out the competition’s offerings, the silver-haired former Marine pilot also watched the unveiling of the Opel Ampera, the latest spinoff of the Chevrolet Volt.


Prius Marching, Not Charging, Towards the Future

Despite sales slump, new model could revive Toyota hybrid.

by on Mar.02, 2009

Third-generation Prius needs to charge up a hybrid market that's nearly collapsed.

The third-generation Prius needs to charge up a hybrid market that has nearly collapsed.

Toyota had its share of electrifying announcements this year, in keeping with the green glow automakers are trying to shine on an otherwise gloomy season. Many headline-grabbers were cars you literally do need to charge up, from GM’s Cadillac Converj concept to Toyota’s own FT-EV electric minicar.

With the 2010 Prius, however, Toyota shows it isn’t flinching in its steely-eyed march toward annual sales of one million plug-free hybrids globally “by the early 2010s.”

Contrasting with the claims that lithium is right around the corner, Toyota’s flagship is staying with tried-and-true nickel-metal hydride batteries. That’s in keeping with Toyota’s cautious plans for 500 plug-in hybrids to be leased late this year for “market and engineering analysis,” as the company states. Regardless of how hard some rivals charge toward plug-in propulsion, Toyota marches steadily forward with what might now be called conventional cordless hybrids.

It’s not a march without stumbles. Total U.S. Prius sales barely tallied 159,000 this past year, compared to 181,000 in calendar 2007. The drop was most precipitous over the past few months as falling fuel prices coincided with the collapse in the economy, credit and car sales overall. The 12% year-on-year decline in Prius volume was not as bad as the 18% decline market wide. The slowdown is enough to have some wags wondering if hybrid technology will get no farther than a small, granola-fed plateau rather than climb the hills of real growth. (more…)

Q&A: “Maximum Bob” Lutz

Why battery power matters...even to those who don't believe in global warming.

by on Jan.30, 2009

Maximum Bob Lutz, getting ready to strafe the competition

Maximum Bob Lutz, getting ready to strafe the competition

To friends and foes alike, he’s “Maximum Bob,” and there’s little doubt that in a half-century career, Robert A. Lutz never shies away from an opportunity to push things to the limits – whether helping develop a new product or racing it. His resume reads like a Who’s Who of Automakers, with names like BMW, Ford, Chrysler and, now, General Motors, where he serves as vice chairman and “car czar,” reporting directly to CEO Rick Wagoner.

The Swiss-born former U.S. Marine fighter pilot would likely see his tenure at the automaker’s downtown Detroit headquarters as the toughest fight of his career. He’s struggled to break through GM’s well-entrenched bureaucracy and get the company to refocus its efforts on making the world’s best cars and trucks. There’ve been some rewards, with newer products, like the Chevrolet Malibu, winning rave reviews. And the Chevy Volt, an “extended-range electric vehicle,” has become a symbol of the industry’s evolution from gas-guzzling SUVs to high-mileage hybrids, plug-ins and pure electric vehicles.

We had the chance to speak with Lutz about a wide range of topics, including the Volt and electric technology. It’s a curious topic for a discussion with the septuagenarian executive because Lutz is an outspoken skeptic when it comes to global warming, but he’s also hot on the subject of battery power.

Q: Any guess, by 2020, what percentage of your vehicles will have a Volt-like powertrain?

Lutz: No, it depends on whether we get a national energy policy, a stable price for fuel, which would permit for planning. Every six months, we’re stupid idiots because (prices change radically and) we should have planned in the other direction. We were stupid when we didn’t plan to build for light trucks. Then we were stupid when we didn’t see fuel hitting $4 a gallon. Now, you can’t give hybrids away, and dealers are saying, “Enough, but we’ll take a few more Tahoe (SUVS).”

Q: You used the Detroit auto show to reveal the battery supplier for your new Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle. What makes one supplier better than another?

Lutz: Oh, it’s suitability of the chemistry, experience in producing that type of battery, energy storage, speed to market, willingness to accept warranty responsibility – and last and probably least, price. We weighed a huge number of variables as we always do.