Why GM Needs to Recalibrate its Volt Strategy

Last week President Obama promised he will buy a Chevy Volt once he’s out of office. “Five years from now when I’m not President anymore, I’ll buy one and drive it myself,” he told the audience at a United Automobile Workers conference. Well, it seems like Chevy wouldn’t mind closing this sale right now to drive sales upwards. Right now demand for the Volt is falling short of supply and as a result GM decided on Friday to suspend production of the Volt for five weeks, idling 1,300 workers at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

Although the Volt’s sales didn’t meet GM’s expectations in 2011, the situation didn’t seem to be that bad – the company sold 7,671 Volts last year, short of its original goal of 10,000 cars. GM had ambitious sales goal for 2012, anywhere between 45,000 to 60,000 cars. Yet, the actual sales are growing much slower – GM sold 1,023 Volts in February and only 603 in January. GM’s plant was operating in accordance with its forecast, which gives you an idea why GM decided it doesn’t want to sit on a pile of unsold electric cars and decided to suspend production for couple of weeks.

If you start wondering if we’re seeing a sequel of ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’, stop right there. The chances GM will shut down the Volt are smaller than the chances Rush Limbaugh will buy one. GM needs the Volt badly, at least in terms of branding, and the company’s hope to see the Volt generating for GM the same halo effect the Prius generated for Toyota hasn’t changed in a bit. The only similarity between the events in the mid 90s and what’s going on now is that they both question GM’s management decisions.

Let’s look first at the demand side. If you looked at the sales figures from 2011, it was obvious that very few people right now are willing to pay $33,500 (the price is $41,000 but you get a $7,500 federal tax credit) for the car. “The price premium on the Volt just doesn’t make economic sense for the average consumer when there are so many fuel-efficient gasoline cars available, typically for thousands of dollars less,” explains Lacey Plache, chief economist for auto information site Edmunds.com.

Even the rise in gas prices doesn’t change the cost-benefit analysis that much. Edmunds senior analyst Michelle Krebs pointed out on CBS news that even at $5 a gallon, it’ll take the average driver 9 years to make up the cost difference over the similar-size Chevrolet Cruze. If the gas prices are going to be around $4 or even less, then the payback period will be longer. Even if we take the nine years break-even point as an assumption – how many people do you know that would be willing to invest in a green product that has a nine year payback time?

It’s not surprising then to hear from dealers that most of the people buying Volts and LEAFs right now do it because they want to be green. The problem is the number of people who want to go green and are willing to pay a hefty premium for it is relatively small. Most people who want to go green don’t like to pay a premium for it at all or are willing to pay just a relatively small premium in some cases. This group seems to be more interested in other cars that are moderately priced and offer good gas mileage, like the Chevrolet Cruze.

Two factors also complicated the picture for GM. First, there was a safety issue – battery fires broke out in three Volts following safety crash-testing last year. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that there was no reason for concern, the whole story, including GM’s offer to buy back Volts from any customers worried about safety certainly didn’t help building the image of the Volt as a safe car.

Second, the car became a policy issue. With President Obama focus on the administration’s contribution to the revival of GM and the auto industry, the Volt became another symbol of the political partisanship. Therefore we heard not only that Mitt Romney doesn’t have a Volt in his fleet, but also from Newt Gingrich during a campaign stop in Tulsa, OK last month: “Let me start from a simple premise that Oklahomans will understand: you cannot put a gun rack in a Volt.”

In all, becoming part of the political debate certainly doesn’t help the sales of the Volt.

On GM’s end it looks like the company had some difficult time in acknowledging reality. How else can you explain GM CEO Dan Akerson telling AP last December that “we want to ramp Volt production to roughly 60,000 in 2012. I think Prius in its second year did a lot less than that, half?” I understand this wishful thinking, but we are talking about December 2011, only couple of months ago, where there already was a clear indication that sales are not going well as expected.

It’s not that the Volt won’t reach the 60,000 benchmark, but it will probably take it more than one or two years to do so. I guess Akerson understands that comparing sales with the Prius right now might not be the best thing for Volt. GM needs to not just to recalibrate its supply, but also Volt’s value proposition, as what it offers now doesn’t seem to be good enough for car buyers, other than President Obama and the other few thousand current owners.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

7 responses

  1. Isn’t part of the problem the fact that the Volt stands as a total misrepresentation.  Long before it was released GM put an acient exec Bob Lutz up beore the world to promote what was to be a car powered by battery & electric motors.  Then at the last minute, holly mackeral, it has an engine!  What can you believe from a company that  pulls that kind of stunt?

      1.  connected to a gas engine so that the engine can recharge the batteries. Does not matter if the engine doesnt power the wheels, it powers the motor that powers the wheels!

  2. Raz. another good article. Thanks!

    Your title suggesting a strategy recalibration is right on target. I have test drove the Volt and wrote about the buzz this car and its technology generates. Why is it being marketed as an “economy” car is a question I asked GM marketing folks. Would Mercedes or BMW market the Volt and its technology sophistication as an economy car? We will see shortly because they have Volt competing technology coming in future models.

    The broader question is why is green being pitched just on cost savings? Is that how Apple pitches the iPad? The iPad is accelerating the clean tech solution of moving from molecules to electrons.  But is this how Apple markets it to customers? No, the iPad is a symbol of  productivity, sophistication and “cool.”

    Clean tech is cool. The business results I have enabled through Green Builds Business and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for businesses across the U.S. is that this marketing path generates sales, cost savings and increased brand equity. Hopefully GM will make this same connection for its Volt.

  3. Maybe half the issue is its freaking expensive? it costs tax payers 200k to make one, and GM sells it for 40k. Got to love it.  Maybe it needs to be canned and technology be worked on to make it cheap. Or sell it at its correct price? $200k.

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