On Thursday, Rick Wagoner, Chairman and CEO of General Motors came to San Francisco to speak about the future of the company and "green" auto technology. It's fascinating to think that not long ago, General Motors was a company beloved by most Americans, a symbol of the innovation, spirit, and the pleasant lifestyle typical of American culture. Today, it is the target of much criticism, when Wagoner must watch his words carefully and bring along a security outfit, for fear of protest. One did break out, but certainly nothing violent or warranting more security than was provided for Nobel Prize winning social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, who had none present at a Commonwealth Club event at the same venue, which he actually more than filled up.
I was actually looking forward to writing a positive review about GM and its efforts to become a leader in environmentally conscious auto manufacturing. Cynicism gets pretty boring. Yet, in Wagoner's carefully scripted speech, there was little to genuinely get excited about. In fact, GM's view of its strategy in green is well-captured in its advertising campaign that states "GM has the most models with EPA-estimated 30 mpg or higher highway fuel economy." We're fine, you're just not buying our cars.
It is no secret that GM is in trouble. The company posted a $3.3 billion first quarter loss and is getting a run for what's left of its money by Toyota, after 76 years of holding the number one spot. According to Wagoner, GM plans to turn itself around by cutting costs (mainly pensions, and add to the that the layoffs that were announced Friday), target fast-growing international markets such as China and India, and to continue its work on advanced "propulsion technologies." Maybe by using such space age terminology, the world will mistake GM for NASA and let them off the hook for blowing so much money.
Volt to the rescue... in 2010. GM is planning to bring 8 hybrids to market by the end of the year (they offer 91 total models today), not including the Chevy Volt, an electric car supported by a 1.0 liter gas engine that will go 40 miles on the battery alone, covering that daily commute, and over 600 miles on 12 gallons of gas. We'll have to wait until 2010 for the Volt. As a result of its delayed response to demand for more fuel efficient vehicles, GM has lost quite a bit of its consumer goodwill, and it certainly didn't help when GM started advertising that its cars were already fuel efficient and fighting legislation that attempts to wed a growing desire for fuel efficient cars with higher standards for manufacturers. To survive, GM needs to regain its brands' authenticity (sounds like Starbucks), not tell consumers that the company will be "green," if they'd just start buying GM cars.
Aside from the protesting outbreak that momentarily interrupted the event, another highlight from the event was when one particularly informed watcher asked Wagoner to comment on a 1998 GM press release stating that it is committed to introducing fuel cell-powered vehicles by 2004.
Apparently, GM has been doing a lot of talking over the last decade. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to see some action.
Ryan Mickle works with many of the consumer brands you know to advance their social responsibility through engaging stakeholders online (we're not talking CSR reports, either). He lives in San Francisco and can be reached at hey at ryanmickle.com.