Bob Lutz has plugged an important gap in the acrimonious debate between fossil fuel and alternative mobility interests.
The former GM vice-chairman and acknowledged father of the Volt PHEV has countered conservative invective directed at his baby by suggesting it has an important place in the nation’s defence.
Conservatives hate the Volt. Mitt Romney called it an idea whose time has not come. Rush Limbaugh, the Fox News claque and most of the usual suspects Big Oil relies on to spruik its interests have given it a belting.
Here’s an example of how they do it. Note how Fox’s Bill O’Reilly calls the Volt ‘plagued with problems’ – ‘plagued’ being one of those beaut hyperboles you can casually chuck into conversation to turn a couple of new-tech hiccups into a multi-storey catastrophe. Much of the conservative monologue on the Volt posits it as the work of socialists, hippies and fools with an inexplicable grudge against oil.
Note, too, how O’Reilly stirs the Volt and other electric cars in with post-GFC bailout deals and the Obama administration to create the impression of some malodorous conspiracy of leftist incompetence and corruption, failing to mention the car was conceived pre-Obama in 2006 and helped along by Bush administration tax incentives.
They also appear not to have noticed there’s hardly an auto company in the world not now working on its own interpretation of electric power.
Now Lutz has come out with fists flying, penning a column for Forbes in March accusing ‘the icons of conservatism’ of ‘deliberately not telling the truth’ about the Volt.
One might think Lutz would be torn between his loyalties to the Volt and the Republican party – he is, after all, on record calling climate change ‘a total crock of shit’ on Real Time With Bill Maher. The former Marines pilot has also achieved a measure of secondary fame for his recreational enjoyment of decommissioned fighter jets (he’s owned a Russian MiG-17 and a Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet) – hardly the stuff of the socks-and-sandals set.
Yet now he has articulated a position that could help draw both sides of the petrol-battery brawl together(ish). At a recent debate on oil security hosted by Washington’s conservative Hudson Institute, Lutz argued that Americans should see the Volt as an important strategic tool in the nation’s defence for its ability to reduce US reliance on foreign oil, particularly from the Middle East.
This was no knee-jerk oil-bashing exercise – it was, after all, titled Improved Oil Security: An Imperative for US Foreign Policy, National Security, and Economic Growth. Lutz came to the Institute with FedEx chief Frederick Smith and two former Marine Corps generals, all of whom now serve on the leadership council of the nonpartisan policy group Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), the event’s cosponsor.
Indeed he and his colleagues took to task those ‘knee-jerk’ hawks who have poo-poohed the Volt. “The unfortunate thing is that because electric cars are very associated with the left-wing environmental green movement to combat global warming and reduce [carbon dioxide], the idea of vehicle electrification triggers this visceral reaction on the part of conservatives. Which is, if it’s electric it must be a product of the left-wing, Democratic enviro-political machine, therefore we hate it,” he told his audience.
“This is an unfortunate, knee-jerk reaction because what the Volt and other vehicles like it are about is… shifting portions of the American mobile sector onto a more efficient and domestically produced power source,” he said.
He denounced the Volt’s detractors for pouncing on and exaggerating the problems that saw several test vehicles catching fire under what GM pointed out were aberrant circumstances. (An example: after crash testing, engineers left a wrecked Volt in a testing yard without powering down the lithium-ion battery, contravening GM’s explicit recommendations. After three weeks of coolant leaking and reportedly crystallising in cold weather, the battery shorted and caught fire.)
“No electric vehicle has ever caught fire [in use], and yet the right is constantly talking about the flammability, overheating, fire hazard of the electric vehicle,” Lutz continued. “Folks, it’s pure fiction. Please get it out of your heads.”
One of the generals, James Conway, pointed out that 50-60 per cent of the fuel consumed by Americans comes from foreign wells. “Our enemies recognise that,” he added.
To redress the obvious vulnerability evident in that, the panel advocated a two-pronged strategy: expansion of domestic oil production while prising open what they called oil’s ‘stranglehold’ on the transport sector with manufacture and purchase incentive schemes around BEVs and plug-ins.
Lutz said if he had his way in the matter, part of such a suite of ‘incentives’ would be to add 25 cents per gallon to the price of fuel each year, ramping up the attraction of smaller cars. He also conceded that’s not going to happen any time soon, hence the fallback position of tax incentives.
He made it clear that such ‘government subsidies’ aren’t his cup of tea, but if that’s the fillip it takes to hasten acceptance of alternative power, it ‘will have to suffice’.
Although attacks on the Volt might have dampened sales, the news is not all bad. Although March was a soft month across the board for the US industry, the car recorded its best ever monthly figure of 2289 sales.