No. 1018
October 16, 2019
 

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Autoextremist.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Monday
Dec052011

THE AUTOEXTREMIST

December 7, 2011

 

Volt hysteria: Why image and perception are everything.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 12/5, 4:00 p.m.) Detroit. Even the most casual observer of this industry has by now heard about the “crisis” with GM’s Chevrolet Volt. The car is spontaneously catching on fire. It’s blowing up the Internet. It’s causing force fields of electronic doom to rain down upon us in an unprecedented reprisal for our dependence on technology. It’s responsible for the BCS quagmire in college football. It made Herman Cain quit the presidential race. It’s single-handedly changing the configuration of the polar ice caps, etc., etc.

The Volt is responsible for none of the aforementioned items, of course, but in the hysteria that comes with the around-the-clock insanity that defines our instantaneously connected world these days, it might as well be.

But beyond all of that, just what is the Chevrolet Volt, exactly? And what does all of this mean?

I consider the Volt to be a dramatic foray into advanced propulsion technology and a singular technological achievement. The Volt would have been an impressive statement by any automaker in the world, but the fact that the True Believers at GM pulled it off under duress and in a hyper-accelerated timeline during the darkest days of the run-up to and through bankruptcy makes the accomplishment all that much more impressive.

Were there bound to be some start-up problems with the technology? Absolutely. But for the most part the Volt has been remarkably free of a lot of the issues that normally burden new product programs. Except for one giant issue, that is. The batteries, after severe crashes, might be – and let me repeat that – might be prone to catching fire quite a while after the fact. Note that this has nothing to do with the following statement: “Chevy Volts spontaneously combust while driving!” But it is an issue that has to be addressed and is being addressed right now.

And, as always, there is context with all of this that must be mentioned as well.

In this country’s headlong rush to embrace advanced “green” technology – rammed through all normal channels of rational thought and perspective by egregiously naïve politicians in Washington and Northern California – the fact of the matter is that this whole “electrification of the automobile” notion is fraught with peril and hindered regularly by the great unknown. The idea that advancements in automobile battery technology would come in bunches and that we’d see remarkable, jaw-dropping improvements on the order of the explosion in computer technology and such was a nice dream to hang on to if you were a rabid idealist who graduated from the “finger snap” school of contemporary thought. But it wasn’t realistic in the least.

(Oh, you know the types, by the way. The ones who regularly chastise the automobile industry for being responsible for all of mankind’s problems both real and imagined. The ones who are absolutely convinced that all of the issues associated with developing durable, affordable and bulletproof battery technology and the accompanying hardware and software that goes with it are just a snap of the finger away and the world will take on a lovely green hue once all of these problems get solved overnight. And it goes without saying, of course, that none of this is even remotely true.)

The technology involved in vehicle electrification is massively complicated and involved. And development of the technology, though racing along at a feverish pace, is coming up far short of the pipe dream schedule imagined by the green intelligentsia. And since that group is painfully unaware of what goes into designing, engineering and producing a contemporary automobile, it is completely understandable that they wouldn’t have a shred of a clue as to how much more complicated that task is once you add the electrification component to it.

Saying all of this then, there’s still an issue that needs to be solved with the Volt battery packs that have been placed under duress in a severe crash. Will it get solved? I have no doubt that it will. After all, every bit of electric vehicle technology being developed right now affects the entire industry, so it’s not only important to the future of the Volt, it’s important to the future of the entire global electric vehicle industry that this issue is solved once and for all.

But after all of the hand wringing, where does that leave the Volt itself?

Though the Chevrolet Volt is a technological marvel and an excellent driving machine, and GM has staked the entire reputation of the company on its integrity and near-seamless performance, the fallout from the initial “Volts catch fire” barrage in the all-consuming communication jungle we exist in today has been damaging.

It didn’t help, of course, that this story has been percolating behind the scenes since last summer, and the media has pounced on that fact. And it also didn’t help that GM’s response to the news was slightly scattered and disjointed when the news broke.

GM Public Relations jumped on the image-wrangling bit immediately in order to get out in front of the story in a page right out of the classic PR 101 “managing a potential disaster” handbook, but in some respects they were a bit premature because it became readily apparent that not everyone was on the same page.

GM’s North American president Mark Reuss insisted at a hastily called media conference that the integrity of the Volt wasn’t compromised due to the issue, and Reuss was and is dead right of course. There is nothing wrong with the integrity, safety and over-the-road performance of the Volt. There is an issue about the proper protocol to depower the batteries after a severe crash, however. And again, it was being addressed.

But then CEO Dan Akerson stepped in it by making an off-the cuff comment to the media a few days later suggesting that the company might have to “fix” the batteries. Akerson's comments added to the confusion and revealed his general lack of awareness about dealing with the media.

This has been a pattern on Akerson’s part since he came on board at GM, unfortunately. It was one thing, however, to make boneheaded statements in general about the business and his knowledge (or lack thereof) of it early on in interviews. Those were a little loopy and laughable and provided amusing fodder for discussions behind the scenes in the business. But it was quite another when Akerson’s Volt comments were not only totally premature, but unnecessary as well. With the Volt image on the line this was serious, make or break stuff, and Akerson’s comments were wildly inappropriate and didn’t help. As a matter of fact they hurt GM’s image-wrangling cause immeasurably.

Reuss should have been the point person on the Volt. Period. And Akerson should have been unavailable. But, it didn’t unfold that way, so GM will be dealing with this for a while.

Is the image of the Chevrolet Volt compromised? In the short term, yes, of course it is. GM has been very clear all along that the Volt is the tip of the company’s technological spear and now the Volt’s reputation has been called into question. Unfairly for the most part, but that’s the painful reality for the denizens of the RenCen nonetheless.

And let’s not forget the other component in all of this, too, and that is the fact that the Volt is the cornerstone of hundreds of millions of dollars in media spending for the Chevrolet division as well. So, this negative development is huge and GM marketing and PR types are going to have to be persistent and relentless in trying to re-build the Volt’s image and reputation.

Will it be easy? No. Far from it, in fact. The relentless 24/7 Connected Circus we live in today has already declared the Volt dead and buried and has moved on to the newest controversy looming around the next corner.

But the Volt does have many things going for it. It delivers what it promises, for one, which in this day and age is actually saying something. And the Volt is an exemplary example of advanced, extended-range electric mobility that fits the needs of many – not all – but many consumers all across the country.

Visionary ideas and concepts always seem to pay the price for being ahead of the curve at some point, whether they originate from people, or companies.

GM is now paying the price for being immersed in the development of advanced electric vehicle technology. Lessons are learned at times predictably, but at other times they’re learned unexpectedly and unpredictably.

GM will survive its latest turn in the barrel. And so will the Volt.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

 

 

 

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