How Car Companies Can Avoid the Dark Side: Electric Cars

By · October 22, 2013

Darth Vader and Dave Barthmuss

Darth Vader and Dave Barthmuss

Dave Barthmuss, General Motors spokesman, stood up to the microphone at last week’s meeting of the Western Journalists Association (WAJ) in San Jose, Calif. Before uttering a word, he paused, surveyed the room of writers, and let out a sigh of relief. Dave then reminded the crowd how far that he and GM had come in the last seven years—from the time, as he put it, he was portrayed as the Darth Vader character in the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which chronicled the infamous crushing of EV1 electric cars, and the ensuing demise of a previous generation of EVs.

The focus of the WAJ session was to discuss the future direction of eco-friendly car technologies. Dave said that, just five years ago, when appearing at events like this, the only story he could tell was that GM’s fledgling hybrids would save the most fuel by being applied to large SUVs and buses. Or he could have talked about the company’s pilot project to put hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road. At the time, those programs looked speculative and anemic. (They still do.) The official GM story sounded bad in those days, especially in the wake of the EV1 debacle and in light of Toyota’s success with the Prius gas-electric hybrid, which was selling like hotcakes.

Dave breathed that sigh of relief, because today he can tell a much better story—of the Chevy Volt—the extended-range electric car that remains leagues ahead of other plug-in hybrids and sells at a steady clip of nearly 25,000 units a year. He can also talk about the Chevy Spark EV, with its impressive torque and accessible price tag. (I drove it for the first time in San Jose. One word review: Quick.) Dave can also point to the upcoming dramatic Cadillac ELR that will bring range-extending electric technology to the company’s bold luxury brand.

Mission accomplished for Mr. Barthmuss, Bob Lutz, and the other creators of the Chevy Volt. The goal of the Volt, as described in in a recent business white paper by Professor Dariush Rafinejad’s of San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School, was “to develop a game changing product that surpassed the competition and laid the foundation for GM leadership in electric propulsion systems of the future.”

Halos and Masks

The chief competition of the day was Toyota. It’s extraordinary to consider how, in a matter of a few years, Toyota is now viewed as the technology laggard, offering the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid with a fraction of the electric capabilities of the Volt. When I recently argued that the new Toyota RAV4 EV deserves recognition as perhaps the most potent mix of utility, affordability, driving range, and kick-ass acceleration among all electric cars on the market today, I got slapped back by the EV community that—despite the merits of the car—can’t abide support of Toyota for its lack of commitment to decent electric car production volume, and for its questionable support for hydrogen fuel cells over battery-electric vehicles.

The entire auto industry can learn a lot from Dave Vader. First, fighting electric cars is a step to the Dark Side. And more seriously, in the car business, public perception matters a lot! There appears to be a mystical energy surrounding certain cars—often in the auto industry referred to as a halo. It is anything but fixed and permanent. A company (or a car or a person) deserving of a halo one year might be cast as evil the following year.

The reverse is also true. Redemption is possible. For Dave Barthmuss, the decision of his company to offer plug-in electric cars is all it took to make everybody see that he really was a good guy all along.

New to EVs? Start here

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