Friday, December 2, 2011

Deja Vu: General Motors Kills the “Electric” Car

The advertising line for the Chevrolet Volt, “Somebody has to be first,” takes on a whole new meaning with the recent revelation that the car’s battery pack has a strong tendency to smoke or catch fire. No one has been hurt, but it is just a matter of time. General Motors is worried enough to recall the car before it has had time to think about a fix. Supposedly it is removing the Volt from the road temporarily, but it also has not made any promises about how soon the car could be redesigned and rebuilt.

At the time that General Motors released the Volt, it appeared as if it was rushing to release a second-round prototype design that hadn’t been meant for production. Two recent revelations about the battery pack reinforce that perception. First, as mentioned, the finding that the battery pack is fairly consistent about generating excess heat, smoke, and fire when damaged. This suggests that General Motors had not had time to test for this before or at any point in the first year of the car’s release. Competitors have been testing their cars in this manner for more than a decade, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Volt was released very early in the product development cycle. Second, that there was no published procedure for discharging the battery pack after it is damaged. That is the kind of maintenance procedure that would be normally be written and tested for a year or two before a car’s release. For it not to still not exist a year after release is hard for automobile industry observers to understand. It creates the impression that the product design work is not very far along at this point.

General Motors had little choice but to trot out the Volt a year ago to support its stock offering. But it did not have to ship it by the thousands while the design engineers were still working. Now, a noticeable fraction of the funds from the stock option must be used to repair the cars that were shipped prematurely, along with the damage done to the Chevrolet brand and General Motors’ reputation. With a flurry of actual electric cars coming to market in the coming year, boasting the kind of thorough product testing that the Volt obviously did not have, General Motors looks a lot like the new kid on the block, trying to catch up with an industry that has a several-year head start on it. Which, of course, it is.

It does not help that General Motors insists on calling its hybrid vehicle an “electric.” General Motors famously killed its actual electric car in the 1990s. Now it has killed its ersatz “electric” car. It’s like it just can’t help itself.