GM—Car Company of the Past or the Future?

March 27, 2012 | 6:44 pm
Michelle Robinson
Former Contributor

One of America’s storied auto companies, General Motors has been in the news a lot lately. Some of the news has been good, some not so good, but overall I see some real progress and reason to think that GM is ready to write a new chapter in a history that has at times been marked by old-school thinking and unfortunate choices.

Living in the Past

For years GM was stuck in neutral and sometimes reverse on several fronts—they vocally opposed increasing fuel economy standards even as other manufacturers were giving consumers more efficient choices and grabbing market share as a result. A good representation of the company’s past attitudes is former GM executive Bob Lutz. Bob for years has railed against government regulation of the industry. In fact, once the fuel economy standards established in 1975 leveled out in the 1980s, Lutz and others at GM took a lead role in keeping any improvements to those standards at bay.

As recently as a few weeks ago, Lutz, now retired, restated this assertion in an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. What’s even more unfortunate is his continued insistence that “global warming is a crock of $&#t.”  Despite the fact that there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that global warming is indeed happening and humans are contributing to it, on that same appearance he reaffirmed his ill-informed opinion that there is no scientific consensus, challenging the only actual scientist on the panel, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of the PBS show scienceNOW, to prove otherwise.  (You can see the actual exchange here but note there is some colorful language in this clip.)

Growing Pains

As they look to the future, there are still bumps in the road. Recently, GM was listed, among several other companies, as providing financial support through their charitable arm for the Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is an advocacy group that among other efforts to put out misleading and inaccurate information on climate, has been developing educational materials for schools questioning the veracity of climate change science. Thousands of GM customers have been weighing in expressing their concern that GM would support such a group.

However, GM’s vice president for sustainability and global regulatory affairs, Michael Robinson, responded this way: “the firm does not support the Heartland Institute’s position and has been operating our business to continually reduce the carbon footprint of our vehicles and operations.” And CEO Dan Akerson said in a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco that he believes that global warming is happening and that he would investigate the situation and “take another look” at the funding from their foundation for Heartland. That’s a good step in the right direction.

The Chevy Volt. Photo: Wonderdawg777/Flickr

Embracing the Future

Here’s what gives me hope. More and more, GM is showing in word and deed a new attitude toward providing cleaner, more efficient options to their customers. It is important to note that they joined with 12 other major manufacturers in supporting the recently proposed fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for new cars and truck produced from 2017-2025. If this means that they are prepared to focus on putting their engineers to work on meeting the standards instead of lobbying to weaken them or looking for loopholes to exploit as they have in the past, that would be a very good thing. And their first commercial entrant in the electric vehicle market, the Chevy Volt, is an impressive vehicle and hopefully a sign of more innovation to come.  In fact, the Volt may be one thing that allows Bob Lutz to claim some embracing-the-future street cred—he was an advocate of that vehicle within the company and has been responding to some of its uninformed critics of late.

The brink of financial collapse can certainly bring focus and renewed purpose to a company; with the help of American taxpayers and better vehicles hitting showrooms, they are getting back on top and the future looks brighter. Perhaps GM has put their checkered past in the rear view mirror and is headed down a new, more enlightened road. They have an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and provide some environmental leadership in the years to come—I hope they seize it.