GM's New Electric Car: Great, But Not in Itself a Winning Business Strategy

GM is on a roll again, a green PR roll. But does the sum of the company's technology strategy add up to viable business strategy in a world going green?

Even if you take GM at its word, that it will build the plug-in hybrid electric car by 2010, the problem is that this is a “swing for the fences” strategy when what the company -- and the climate -- needs is some solid singles and doubles to keep in the game. Kicking the petroleum habit is critical to solving global warming, but it's at least as important to increase the fuel efficiency of every car and truck built between now and when plug-ins become the dominant technology.

Let's say plug-ins become the dominant technology in 2030. The problem is that every year 17 million cars and light trucks are sold in the U.S. and each one of them will be responsible for 75 tons of global warming pollution over its lifetime. And CO2 pollution hangs in the atmosphere for about 200 years. We simply can’t wait two or three decades to start taking carbon out of cars to solve global warming.

Maintaining a healthy, vibrant auto industry is critical to financing the investment in new, clean technologies that will be necessary to solve global warming. GM’s ability to be a leader, not a follower, in a green market is highly in doubt if they continue to have an internal disconnect between public policy, product planning, and their engineers. How can GM unleash their engineering prowess necessary to be fuel economy leaders if their lobbyists fear if they commit doing such, Congress will make it a requirement? How can engineers secure the necessary resources to aggressively seek fuel economy improvements on every vehicle when their lobbyists tell them their official position is “it can’t be done”? (For more on this, read this commentary from the University of Michigan's Walter McManus.)

Here’s a wild idea. Why doesn’t GM step up to the plate and challenge the best of the foreign manufacturers on being truly green? Make a truly high volume product (lightweight hybrid?) to compete and beat the Prius on every environmental dimension? Why not turn Saturn into a full Green Line division? Every Saturn a hybrid or at least with a stop start system to turn engine off at idle.

It all starts with GM's lobbyists calling a truce on the losing battles they have been waging in Congress against CAFE standards and in court against the California Clean Car programs. Science, politics and the law are on the side of solving global warming. It’s time for GM to get its internal house in order on a truly green strategy and fight to regain their leadership in a world gone green.