March 20, 2008 — -- Not making a hybrid car like the Prius was a "mistake," outspoken General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz told a room of Chevy Volt "fan boys" at the New York Auto Show this week.
"We had the technology to come out with a hybrid at the same time as Toyota," Lutz said Tuesday. "In hindsight, it was a mistake. ... We made the mistake and we won't make it again."
"I think the whole company has learned when you step out and do bold things, you win and when you're cautious and let other people do the bold things, you lose," he continued.
Lutz was at the auto show for an unprecedented town hall type, question-and-answer session from the "Volt Nation," a group of fans of the Volt, GM's electric concept car. They have rallied around a blog created by a New York neurologist who is unaffiliated with the company.
Lyle Dennis, a neurologist at New Jersey's Hackensack Medical Center and Englewood Hospital, started the blog GM-Volt.com when the concept car debuted in January 2007.
The Chevy Volt runs on a combination of a lithium ion battery and gas. The battery can be used for up to 40 miles at a time.
"I was personally struck by the importance and the potential of the car and I wanted to do something as a rallying point," Dennis said. "It was really more of an experiment and I didn't know if I could make a difference with it, so I've been surprised with what's happened this year."
Dennis came to the attention of GM executives just a few short months after he started his blog.
"We first met Lyle in April of last year when his Web site kept popping up with news on the Chevy Volt," said Rob Peterson, a spokesman for GM. "It blossomed into a relationship."
According to Peterson, as that relationship developed, Dennis brought up the idea of Volt engineers having a town hall meeting with the readership of his blog.
GM acquiesced, letting Dennis use its New York Auto Show floor space. Dennis called the meeting "Volt Nation."
Within 24 hours of announcing the meeting on his blog, Dennis saw more than 250 people sign up to attend.
"There are people that doubt our intentions. The only way to prove to them that we're serious is to let them watch us stumble every now and then as well," Peterson said.
GM has been criticized for the handling of the EV1, the company's first electric car released in 1996. The EV1 was later recalled and reportedly required an intensive interview process that some have described as discouraging.
More recently, Lutz came under fire for telling reporters last month that "global warming is a crock of s--." GM's CEO Rick Wagoner later said that the comments were not reflective of the company's position.
"Going out in public is exactly what we said we would do," Peterson said. "It's a risk."
At the show, at least 50 people, in addition to 100 seated audience members, lined up to ask questions about the pricing, design and technology of the Volt. Fans traveled from as far as California to attend.
Larry Geguzis, a 59-year-old retired child therapist and GM-Volt.com devotee, made the 4½-hour drive from his home in central Pennsylvania just to hear what Lutz and other executives had to say.
Geguzis first became interested in green automobile technology after he retired.
"With the price of gas going up, it just eats into disposable income," he said. "I just get goose bumps when I think about 40 miles at highway speed in that nice, quiet gasoline-free ride."
Although Geguzis hopes to see the Volt on the road by the end of 2010 as promised by GM executives, he says that he's frustrated more fuel-efficient vehicles aren't on the road now.
"Don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough," he said. "Come 2010 there will be several companies coming out competing with the Volt. The thing that I will be looking at the most is: Which one can I drive totally petroleum free? ... That's really the omega for me."
Former NASA engineer Phil Toney, another active GM-Volt member who goes by Nasaman on the site, flew to New York just for the event from his home in DeBary, Fla.
"When I discovered Lyle's site, I was thrilled that GM was going to do a complete turnabout and be totally out," Toney said. "I can't think of anyone that's ever done that before."
For all of GM's talk about openness, however, a lot of questions were ultimately answered with "I don't know."
"There's still a lot of unknowns," an executive said from the stage to a New York man who asked about the car's pricing. "We don't have an answer. This is a technology that's never been tried before."