ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Beyond parts, General Motors has something of an image problem. With gas prices near record highs and global warming a growing concern, many potential car buyers see GM as a company that doesn't have much to offer when it comes to fuel economy.
As Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio reports, GM executives are working to change that image.
DUSTIN DWYER: It's not hard to figure out why GM feels like it has to change its image. It's the Prius.
Mr. PETER RUST(ph) (Car seller, Michigan): It's huge. It's huge.
DWYER: Peter Rust sells Toyotas in Grand Blank, Michigan, the heart of GM country.
Mr. RUST: Everybody who's in here looking at Toyotas is talking about the Prius as well. The Prius will always be associated with Toyotas. It is actually, maybe Toyota's icon.
DWYER: It's not clear what GM's icon would be these days. For some, it might be the Hummer. Figure in what gas is going for right now and the dire predictions about global warming, and you can see why GM might want a newer, greener icon to steal some thunder away from the Prius.
(Soundbite of music)
DWYER: They unveiled the vehicle they hope will take on the Prius at this year's Detroit Auto Show.
Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, the 2007 Chevrolet Volt Concept.
DWYER: The Volt Concept is essentially an electric vehicle that uses a small gas engine as a back-up generator. That's a different approach than Toyota's hybrids, which rely primarily on the gas engine and use electricity as the backup.
GM's approach could lead to a big leap in fuel economy. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz announced the Volt could go 40 miles without using gasoline at all.
Mr. BOB LUTZ (Vice Chairman, General Motors): If your daily driving - whether to work or running errands or for recreational use - is 40 miles a day or less and you charge the vehicle every night when you get home, you will never need to buy gasoline during the entire life of the vehicle.
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DWYER: For GM, the problem is that the Volt is still a concept vehicle. The company says it wants the car in showrooms sometime around 2010 but that could be wishful thinking.
Jim Hall is an analyst for AutoPacific.
Mr. JIM HALL (Analyst, AutoPacific): It's dependent on something that they don't control and that's the development and the commercialization of a viable lithium-ion or lithium polymer battery, and that's a great technology. The question is do you - they're pinning the viability of the system on somebody else doing the development because they don't develop the batteries themselves, they don't have the expertise.
DWYER: Lithium-ion batteries are currently used to power things like laptops, cordless drills and cell phones. They can carry a lot more juice than the nickel metal hydride batteries in vehicles like the Prius. But lithium-ion batteries are also a lot less stable. They can easily overheat. And right now, they don't last as long as nickel metal hydride batteries.
So GM engineers are pushing for other gas-saving technologies as well. They say the key is to have a diverse range of energy options for vehicles. GM's head of research and development Larry Burns says right now, GM's vehicles are overwhelmingly gasoline-powered.
But he says even if every vehicle in the world could magically be switched to hybrid engines like the Prius, gas use would only decline by about 25 percent. Meanwhile, he says the number of vehicles on the road keeps going up.
Mr. LARRY BURNS (Vice President of Research and Development, General Motors): So has the hybrid solved this problem? No, they haven't. If you like your economy to keep growing, we'll go 10 years, shift everything to hybrids, pick up the 25 percent, we're going to be staring right at the same problem we're staring at today.
DWYER: GM's long-term plan to solve that problem relies heavily on hydrogen fuel cells if fuel cells would replace today's internal combustion engines and emit only water. GM even has a fuel cell concept version of the Volt.
Still, not everyone buys that GM is serious about changing its gas-guzzling ways. Critics point to the automaker's opposition to federal and state mandates that would require higher gas mileage. GM and other automakers say the goals and timetables in those mandates will be difficult, if not impossible to meet.
Larry Burns says GM is still committed to greener vehicles, and he says it's not just about changing the automaker's image or building a new iconic vehicle. It's about survival. Given today's problems with energy and the environment, Burns says GM simply won't survive in the future if it doesn't change.
Mr. BURNS: Something's got to give. And for business reasons, we have to find alternatives to petroleum, and I think that's the business realities of getting on with this is that if anything has changed, it would become very, very apparent to all of us.
DWYER: The results of that change will be showing up at GM dealerships as early as this year. GM is launching four new hybrid vehicles and executives say that's more than any other automaker.
For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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