"History is a wonderful thing, if only it was true"

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Eyes on the Road: maximum Bob on Hybrids

WSJ.com - Eyes on the Road

Brief backgrounder then brief interview with Bob Lutz, now in charge of GM's development and engineering worldwide.

Bob "Get's it" ... Impressions Count !
At a recent conference in New York City hosted by Morgan Stanley auto analyst Stephen Girsky, GM's vice chairman for product development, Bob Lutz, offered some candid comments on industry trends and vehicle technology. Mr. Girsky set up a quiz-show format in which he tossed out the name of a feature and Mr. Lutz weighed in on whether consumers considered it important or not. Mr. Lutz's presentation was accessible by a conference call.

Mr. Lutz's responses indicate that GM has done an intellectual 180 on the issue of hybrid gas-electric vehicles. Not long ago, GM executives expressed little enthusiasm for hybrid vehicles, and pooh-poohed the Toyota Prius as a money loser that made little contribution to saving fuel and distracted the industry from efforts to build cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Mr. Lutz, who last week took control of GM's vehicle development and engineering strategy world-wide, now acknowledges that "Toyota scored a major coup with hybrids even though they didn't have a business case." Having hybrid vehicles, he said, is now a symbol of whether a car maker is technologically capable and environmentally aware. GM recently announced efforts to mass-produce hybrid gas-electric SUVs by 2007. As for commercially viable fuel-cell cars? Maybe by 2010, Mr. Lutz says.


Note ! Prius as Marketing Masterstroke, not necessarily as engineering marvel.

The interview excerpt:

Here's part of Mr. Lutz's exchange with Mr. Girsky, based on a recording of the conference call:

Mr. Girsky: Horsepower?

Mr. Lutz: Important.

Q: ABS [anti-lock brakes]?

A: (Pause) Was unimportant. Now it becomes important as we standardize vehicle stability systems, because you can't have [vehicle-stability systems] without ABS.

Q: Stability control?

A: Very important.

Q: Airbags?

A: Very important.

Q: The more the merrier?

A: I think there's a logical conclusion. I told our guys at some point we are going to design one huge inflatable thing that fills the whole [car] … so where if you hit a lamp post you find yourself pressed against the seat as if you were lying under the belly of a beached whale.

Q: Satellite radio?

A: Very important.

Q: Navigation [systems]?

A: Growing. [In] premium cars it's almost a necessity now. If you don't have it, the customer wants to know why.

Q: Heated steering wheels?

A: Not important. I think it's nice, but it's not a huge-selling feature. If you have heated seats, then it is.

Q: Auto dimming mirrors?

A: Normal expectation? No.

Q: All-wheel drive?

A: You can still live without it, but [it's] growing.

Q: Hybrid?

A: Growing. And whether the market becomes giant, or flattens out at 300,000 units a year -- which in the context of the American market is a pittance -- it has become symbolic of: "Is this company technologically capable? Is this company environmentally aware?" And it's a sort of go/no-go gauge. If you have hybrids you're OK, and if you don't you're not. I'd say Toyota scored a major coup with hybrids even though they didn't have a business case.

Q: They still may not have a business case.

A: Doesn't matter. Again, we have this artificial separation in our minds between what we spend on consumer influence in advertising and what we spend on the product. And sometimes the most effective form of consumer influence is to do things like the hybrid.

Q: Remote start?

A: Surprised me, but it's a big feature on the [Pontiac] G6 and [Chevrolet] Malibu.

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