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And I'm Renee Montagne. Even as General Motors continues to slash costs and ask for more taxpayer loans, there is one big perk GM is still offering: a company car, and company-paid gas for about 8,000 white collar employees. A former GM economist estimates that last year alone the automaker spent nearly $12 million on fuel for its staff. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: By all accounts, GM's car program is a great deal. Rob Kleinbaum participated in it when he was global strategist at the automaker in the early 1990s. Kleinbaum's nicest company car, a Chevy Suburban with 10-way adjustable heated leather seats.
Mr. ROB KLEINBAUM (Former GM Employee): It's a really highly valued perk. It's feels kind of fun. You get to drive a new car every three months. You never have to pay for it. You never have to worry about it going wrong. Gasoline is always free.
LANGFITT: The program is not quite as good today. Now managers get a new car every six months. Kleinbaum says it's one thing for a company to offer a perk like this when it's making tons of money, but last year GM lost more than $30 billion. It's already received more than $13 billion in taxpayer loans to avoid bankruptcy and it's asking for up to 16 billion more. Kleinbaum says continuing to provide cars and gas sends the wrong message.
Mr. KLEINBAUM: This is to me as much like when the CEOs flew their airplanes to Washington begging for money, and they all flew their corporate jets. It's not as insulting as that, but it is the same - will have the same impact on the public. Why are these guys getting free cars and free gas when the American taxpayer is paying for it?
LANGFITT: Kleinbaum says GM should kill the program, not because of the expense but because it reinforces a corporate insularity for which GM has been criticized in the past. Kleinbaum says the perk prevents GM employees from fully understanding what customers want and what they go through. Like when gas hit $4 a gallon last summer.
What were GM people missing if they weren't paying for their gas themselves?
Mr. KLEINBAUM: They were missing the pain. I would be totally in favor of eliminating this benefit, more because it would drive everybody in the company to be much closer to the marketplace and so they kind of feel the same thing that their customers feel.
LANGFITT: GM would not speak on tape, but a spokesman defended the program, which has been around for at least 50 years. He said the perk is part of a white collar employee's overall compensation, which GM says is competitive with Toyota's and Honda's. And the benefit is not entirely free. For instance, managers pay a $250 administrative fee each month to participate. GM says other companies have car programs too. That's true. But both Ford and Chrysler say they don't provide gas for such a huge swath of employees.
I asked Mark Truby about Ford's program. Truby is head of corporate communications there.
When you go to the pump, do you pay for the gas?
Mr. MARK TRUBY (Ford Motor Company): I do.
LANGFITT: The company, does it give you money for the gas?
Mr. TRUBY: No.
LANGFITT: GM insists its employees appreciate the impact of high fuel prices, but one current GM staffer I spoke with said the perk does blind some people. He recalled that when gas spiked last summer, a colleague complained. Not about the cost but because he had to swipe his credit card twice to fill up the tank of his big SUV. Inside GM the perk is formally called the Product Evaluation Program. The company says it's an important tool to improve vehicle quality. Employees must make routine reports to an internal Web site and immediately identify problems, but one former GM economist questioned the program's value.
Walter McManus worked at General Motors during most of the 1990s. He now runs the auto analysis division at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.
Mr. WALTER McMANUS (Former GM Employee): I am not aware — when I was in market research or in product planning — of anyone at GM ever using the information for any, any sort of analysis or product development decisions.
LANGFITT: I see. And so did anybody take it seriously as an evaluation program when you were there?
Mr. McMANUS: No one that I knew took it seriously.
LANGFITT: GM disputes that. A spokesman said employees provide frequent critical feedback for engineers. General Motors won't say what it spends on the program, or even how much it spends just on gas, but using GM numbers and recent federal data, McManus and I tried to come up with a figure over his dining room table.
Mr. McMANUS: And if the average is 25 miles per gallon…
LANGFITT: The annual cost for gas last year, as best we could figure: nearly $12 million. GM has talked about ending the program, but a spokesman said employees have built their lives around it. It allows many to live far from their offices and commute at little expense. The spokesman said killing the program now would be, quote, "extremely disruptive."
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.
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