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Friday, May 2, 2008

GM Says Americans Won't Give Up SUVs, But They'll Plug Them In


Bob Lutz says the future of the automobile can be summed up in two words: Proportion and propulsion. That's a snappy way of saying big cars aren't going anywhere, but at least they'll be electric.

The way Lutz sees it, Americans won't give up their pickup trucks and SUVs until they're shelling out more than 10 bucks a gallon to fill them. Yes, rising fuel prices and explosive growth in India and China mean General Motors must "compete aggressively in the brave new small-car world," GM's chief rabble-rouser says in a Newsweek column. But Detroit will keep cranking out land yachts because people not only want them, he says, they need them.

Still, Maximum Bob has been around long enough to know internal combustion is on its way out. He has seen the future, and it has an extension cord.

And a long tail.

"I have been quoted saying, 'The electrification of the automobile is inevitable,'" Lutz, who as vice chairman of global development has a say in everything GM builds, writes. "I stand by that, and I believe it more every day."

That'll surprise - and anger - EV fanatics who will never forgive GM for crushing their beloved EV1 electric cars. Lutz doesn't mention the EV1 in the Newsweek piece, but he recently told the Detroit News the EV1 "was a noble effort" that failed because it was too expensive, too small and took too long to charge. GM, he says, won't make that mistake again.

"We're pouring engineering resources into developing our E-Flex system, which will underpin a generation of electrically driven vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt," he writes in the Newsweek piece.

Note that he said "a generation" of EVs, suggesting we'll see the technology in a range of vehicles. It's anyone's guess how long it will be before that happens. According to the Wall Street Journal, GM is committing itself only to the Volt for now, although the E-Flex system could be put in a small pickup truck.

Ah, pickups, which with SUVs have been Detroit's mainstay for almost 20 years. Lutz says they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. As long as people have loads to carry, trailers to haul and long distances to cover, they're going to want big cars and trucks to do it with. "Not everyone is going to switch to very small cars, or tiny little pickup trucks, unless they suddenly decide to haul tiny little horse trailers carrying tiny little horses," he writes. That's one reason GM is putting hybrid drivetrains in vehicles like the GMC Yukon and developing the Saturn Vue Green Line plug-in hybrid.

Lutz sees a dichotomy developing within the auto industry, but it's actually a long tail. Automakers must sell less of more if they are to survive. For GM, Lutz says, that means building small, efficient - and cheap - cars for emerging markets like China and India. It also means offering everything from thrifty compacts like the Chevrolet Aveo to tarmac-tearing beasts like the Corvette ZR1 - for "mature" markets while meeting the tightening fuel economy and emissions regulations in America and Europe.

"The U.S. fleet won't come to resemble what's in Europe until fuel prices climb well above $10 per gallon," Lutz writes. "Until then, there will be a place for all types of vehicles in the market, even as volumes change."

Original here

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