General Motors’ Quest to Become “Green Motors”

wagoner.jpgOn 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

Ryan Mickle is one of the partners and pundits behind 3p. He is a consultant, speaker, and passionate advocate for transparency, values-driven business, and empowering "consumers" to become evangelists in our new, decentralized media landscape. Ryan holds a BA in Economics from Berkeley, and he loves traveling, running marathons (love may be too strong a word), yoga, and contributing to the gross national happiness (GNH) in business and otherwise.

20 responses

  1. I just started dreaming about a new highway system for bicyclists that will be elevated with ramps like those highways for cars. I am really turned off by having to deal with stoplights because accelerating from stopping is most tiring of bicycling . I often run redlights at every opportunity I get, you get the idea? I also dream of boring tunnels through hills as well. If we can use electric bikes if we want. I think it is well worth the investment as it will save a lot of fuel. We have highways for cars, buses, subways, and we have yet to add highways for bicyclsts!!!! There is a lot of bicycle enthusiasts that will come on stream once the highways for bicycles are built in metorpolitians.

  2. There will be bicycle shops along the highways to fix flat tires and whatnots. This will remove the biggest barrier to bicycle riding for all practical purposes…There will be tow bicycles offerd by AAA..

  3. This article is exactly on point. We are undergoing a major paradigm shift with Peak Oil. Detroit continues to ignore the Rocky Mountain Institute and carbon fiber where car bodies will be stronger, lighter and much more efficient. Toyota will sell a Prius PHEV in 2010. View the DVD “A Crude Awakening” and you begin to realize the extent of GM’s troubles. We are 100 years behind Europe and need major investments in walking, bicycle routes, electric light & high speed rail – on based on renewable energy (solar, hydro, wind, geothermal). GM will rapidly be left behind

  4. American buyers are fairly loyal to car brands, and that can cut both ways. GM was able to continue making crappy cars and still retain loyalty. But when their customers finally started buying Hondas and Toyotas GM found that it’s nearly impossible to get them back.
    I had the misfortune of owning a 1984 Cavalier and as a result I haven’t owned a GM product since, and may never buy one again. And since then, my wife and I have bought 3 new cars: Ford, Honda, Toyota.
    And it’s time to replace my ’94 Accord and I’ll probably go with another Honda. If I believed that the Volt would be out in 2010 and would be affordable I might wait two more years and buy one, but because of GMs reputation I’m not going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m guessing the Volt will come out in 2012 and will not meet expectations.
    Fortunately for GM, they’re selling more of their crappy cars in other countries where the consumers haven’t caught onto their act yet.

  5. GM is to be commended for doing more but has a GREAT DEAL of damage to repair and ground to reclaim. Going back to Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, GM has a sad history of doing as it pleases in classic monolithic form. Nevertheless, with Honda and Toyota cleaning their clock, we must encourage GM at every turn.

  6. You sir are a moron.
    GM has been hurting for quite awhile now, and are actually on an upswing. GM has showcased a few fuel-cell powered prototypes and concepts for years…. before 2004 as well mind you.
    Seems like someone mistakenly let you into this little event, and you take there good will and turn it into a GM bash session. Wake up and check your facts past the last 4 months you knob.

    Anon, please provide an email/URL if you actually want to have an objective discussion.

  7. Until “green” vehicles can keep up with a Dodge Viper in terms of acceleration, top speed, range, and refueling time there will be no place for them in my garage. Fuel efficiency is great, but not at the cost of performance.
    I find today’s gas prices completely manageable and one could say I have a heavy foot. Most European-made cars are like cheap toys and personally I prefer American muscle and performance (and the occasional Japanese rice rocket).
    There is more than one demand to meet.

  8. The Volt is a revolutionary car, the first one of a series that is likely to turn GM around big time. 2010 sounds like an early launch date for the Volt though? Maybe a limited production series for consumer testing while they work on lithium-ion battery packs?

  9. Considering that GM killed the EV-1 all those years ago (see “Who Killed the Electric Car”), you wonder how much GM has learned?
    As someone who worked for a supplier to GM and has been in all the plants worldwide, they are hurting in more ways than marketshare. The unions have strangled them and their policies towards suppliers are combative. Exactly opposite for Honda/Toyota. GM must survive, though, for if they go under, the shock to our economy may be hard to swallow…

  10. I dont think you guys understand that GM Ford and Even Chrysler are three of the companies that we need to keep this economy going. Show a sense of nationalism and buy an American Car. We need to support our American companies and help to rid ourselves of this recession.

  11. Wow, hey that’s great! A car by the end of the year with a 1.0L engine/ hybrid that gets about 50mpg! Great step backwards! I have a 91′ Geo Metro that gets 52mpg in normal mixed city/highway driving. Good job GM, hey wasn’t the Geo a GM product? Hmm, actually a Suzuki product. Oh, and not a Hybrid. Hmm…

  12. I highly recommend that you watch “Who killed the electric car?” Just goes to show you karma does exist. The EV1 was the most excellent idea in terms of going in the direction to stop dependency on foriegn oil, but do you think the car manufacturers and big oil would allow it? hell no! Its a conspiracy!

  13. Why aren’t they talking about hydrogen energy here. As far as I know there is a Hummer they built aka H2Hummer. May be because they still can’t produce hydrogen with purely green methods. Anybody heard of this crap about getting hydrogen out of water and using that to run cars? Check out The claims are outrageous. May be GM should concentrate on producting a W4G Hummer after reading above article.

  14. @Brett: I am inspired by companies that set up locker rooms and bike storage so employees can bike to work every day, and look forward to the day when cities truly promote cycling as a form of transportation. It will serve our environment and our health.

    Check out this article from the NY Times on New York’s plans to promote commuting via bicycle. Thanks for reading.

    @Guy Sam: Ford is looking into this… it is very early stage. Will write more on it soon.

    @Rob: Thanks for the comment. I recently pointed out to a friend that if Virgin or another brand that has earned the trust (even love/affection) of consumers were to (dare I say it) buy GM, they’d likely pretty easily turn the company around with reasonably attractive design/quality/price offerings.

  15. @The Niko: Totally agree. GM has more to reinvent than just its brand. I don’t think GM really worries much about bankruptcy. I would imagine that they’d get bailed out just like we saw Bear Stearns did recently.

    @Andy: I appreciate and identify with your support for American companies. Just because GM is an American company, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be blind to the company’s values and their alignment with our own. I’d be a proud GM owner if it was aligned with my values. When I buy Seventh Generation, Method, Patagonia, Stonyfield Farms products, etc., I do so proudly.

    @Nick: That is hilarious. It kind of makes you feel old in reminiscing about how “cars used to be in my day.” Check out this Autoweek article on the impact of weight on fuel efficiency. I’ll probably circle back on it in the future. I do think that the Volt will hardly be worth the wait, since Toyota and others will have some great options by then.

    I was born and raised in Detroit. I even worked at the Mound Road Engine Plant on DeQuindre as a young college student. Detroit auto executives have ALWAYS been behind. It is no surprise that foreign cars have taken over.
    Detroit is behind again. The new “minimum” for gas is at least 4 dollars/gallon. Within 3 years, the new minimum will be 5 dollars/gallon.
    And Detroit still produces monster cars and trucks. Now…after so many years of being behind, Detroit expects to produce a few cars with decent mileage???
    Too little….too late…the typical response of overpaid, underbrained executives.
    They’r all idiots.

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