Is the Tesla Model S Bob Lutz’s new Toyota Prius?
Had GM focused on a Model S-like plug-in, rather than the Volt, would they be more successful?
I never liked ex GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz and co-father of the Chevy Volt until I met him. Even then I often haven’t agreed with him, I love his tact, or lack thereof. Lutz shoots from the hip and makes no excuses.
And Lutz’s latest target is the idea that Tesla is such a smarter EV player than GM and the rest of the Big 3.
Recently another Forbes contributor, as Lutz also is these days, claimed the early success of the Tesla Model S proves that Tesla is the best automaker in the EV game — an assertion I agree with to some extent.
But not Lutz, whom spent the decade between the launch of the Prius and the launch of the Chevy Volt constantly ridiculing and mocking the Toyota Prius. Ironically though the success of the Prius and the boldness of Elon Musk and the Tesla Roadster did push Lutz towards becoming the baby daddy of the Volt.
If you look at the way Lutz sees the auto industry — a perspective most don’t appreciate. He makes some interesting points.
Lutz summarizes “Tesla produces a nice car for a social elite that can afford $80-110K transportation. That’s a thin market, where innovation is rewarded, but prone to being discarded with equal speed when the next must-have “gold Rolex” comes along. Don’t confuse it with what Detroit does for a living.”
For GM and Detroit scale is the ONLY thing that matters, and Lutz is right. Initially offering the Volt as a much more elegant, top of the line Cadillac wouldn’t have helped GM more than its current Chevrolet iteration. In fact, it would have made the Volt less successful.
Surprisingly, the Chevy Volt is more about scale than what many might believe, in the short to midterm at least, and Chevy Cruze sales prove that fact conclusively.
Bob Lutz is no dummy. Despite Lutz’s Prius hate, Lutz has always been tuned into the fact that the Prius brought in many Toyota buyers that bought something other than a Prius. And the Volt has helped GM do the same.
Similarly, Lutz — and apparently Elon Musk — know that range anxiety is a very real issue. That’s why Musk is building electric cars with much greater range than the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus electric or Honda Fit EV, for instance. Likewise, Lutz and GM’s Jon Lauckner also took a different plug-in approach — an approach that offered real market differentiation. And have no doubts, Lutz is a master marketer. Unrefined, yes, but still a master.
In my opinion the Chevy Volt was a masterful move for GM based on the options available at the time. Of course, as a foreign oil independence zealot, I’m terribly disappointed with the Volt. It’s been obvious for a long time that the Volt wouldn’t be enough anytime soon. It’s a chip in the electrification game, but also a marketing ploy.
But is that really much different than any other automaker?
No, including Tesla, because when it comes to the scale required to truly make an impact, Tesla isn’t even remotely close to offering up a solution. In fact, GM is far, far, far ahead.
That’s no rip on Tesla. While I’ve been opposed to Fed funding for Fisker, I’ve been 100 percent behind funding for Tesla. Elon Musk is a proven out-of-the-box thinker. A disruptive technology entrepreneur. Musk could be the kind of innovator that redefines the automotive segment and personal transportation, but he’d still have to partner with the Big 3 as quickly as possible in order to make that technology truly matter.
At the end of the day concepts like global warming and US energy independence are dependent upon scale at a level most simply can’t comprehend.
So be inspired by Tesla’s innovating ways — I sure am — but the Big 3 are still the most important outlet for the success of the plug.