GM’s product czar Bob Lutz announced last week that he will be retiring at the end of the year. The green car world came to know Mr. Lutz as both the jet-flying, cigar-chomping disser of global warming and the forward-looking product chief who introduced the Chevy Volt. His role as Volt champion made him the unlikely affirmer of General Motors’s effort to reinvent itself as environmentally friendly.
In an interview with Tom Krisher of AP last Monday, Lutz bemoaned what he saw as a depressing new period of government oversight, one driven by the need for higher fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions. Explaining how he felt that his abilities no longer fit the times, Lutz said that the new era “doesn’t really play to my greatest skills, which were perhaps more in the intuitive, emotional area with sort of a sense for what the market would want.”
Green? Lack of emotion? No, it’s not Lutz’s talent that is out of step. It’s his worldview.
Lutz epitomizes the “Old Detroit” in terms of ecological attitudes, a cohort of corporate leaders who rose to the top eerily disconnected from the parallel rise of environmental values in American culture.
For whatever reasons, most US auto executives saw green only as inherently “anti-car” rather than as a chance to redefine the car for a new world that is very different than that of their formative years. Bill Ford was pilloried for trying, though he had his finger on the pulse of the future a good bit before it arrived to catch his peers off guard.
The Old Detroit zeitgeist remained in deep denial across the turn of the century even as Honda and Toyota brought practical hybrids to market, soon followed by 9/11, Arianna Huffington’s Detroit Project, mounting fears of the end of oil, melting glaciers in Lutz’s Swiss homeland, and then escalating—and last summer spiking—gasoline prices. All of those factors and then some will meld into the still unfolding but emotive formulas that define what sells in the years ahead.
In short, customer-oriented intuition is needed more than ever. However, it will have to be applied with a much different understanding of what the car can be. Thus, it’s not Lutz’s core skill that is passé. It’s his mind-set about what will be—indeed, is already starting to be—valued by a new generation of car buyers.
Throwing Technology at the Problem
Lutz himself seemed to get this when, remarking on the growing success of hybrids during the 2005 Detroit auto show, he said “We forgot about the emotional impact and the fact that a lot of people out there want to make an environmental statement.”
But the Volt also epitomizes the view that the solution to the environmental challenge is expensive new technology. Lutz is being succeeded by the GM’s executive vice president for global powertrain, Thomas Stephens. The Wall Street Journal writes, Stephens is “well-versed in what goes on under the hood, which is precisely where GM and other US automakers have to play catch up with some foreign rivals.”
A Lutzian Passion, For Green
While technology has a role to play—as it had for the muscle-car era—success won’t only or even mainly be found in the tech fix. The public relations blitz that GM has built around the Chevy Volt may reveal a glimmer of realization that some serious sales hooks might be colored green.
But it’s not yet clear that they’re connecting the dots, which critics point out may take a retooling of corporate culture much deeper than one futuristic product can provide. Lutz himself undertook at least the start of such retooling as he enlivened GM’s mainstream product strategy.
So, as Bob Lutz fires up his afterburners to smear one last exhaust plume across the evening sky, perhaps a new car guy (or girl) is being cultivated inside GM. That person might be tattooed and body-pierced, but will surely be well wired to the world around us. And if he or she has a Lutzian passion for product, the company will have hope for triumph in a new era.
This article was contributed to HybridCars.com by John DeCicco, senior fellow, Environmental Defense Fund.