Rick Wagoner & the EV1

In yesterday’s edition of The New York Times contributing editor, Jerry Garrett, commenting on the resignation of Rick Wagoner as CEO of General Motors asks whether he’ll “be remembered as the chief executive who nearly drove General Motors off a cliff or the martyr who sacrificed himself in G.M.’s darkest hour to insure the company would receive more of the government bailout money that G.M. needed to survive”

It’s a good question. Grant’s short summary of Wagoner’s eight-year tenure as CEO to some extent tells hisd readers a lot about how the company got into the poor shape it is today.

…it is hard to ignore the zigzagging strategies of Mr. Wagoner’s tenure: It was the truck company, then it was the green car leader, an international car company and then the red-white-and-blue all-American automaker. It championed flex-fuel and E85 ethanol, only to backtrack to “gas friendly.” Several times it would renounce badge-engineering, in which several divisions would offer essentially the same car with minor differences. Yet with each new model it would return to the strategy. Its failure to design viable minivans, for instance, was compounded by forcing each of its divisions to sell its own version.

This may be a good time to have another look at Chris Paine’s Who Killed The Electric Car?, which will be broadcast on More 4 this evening.

The battery powered EV1, produced by General Motors, is still deemed to be one of  most efficient production cars ever built. It produced no emissions and put General Motors streets ahead of other American car manufacturers in terms of technology

Those few who were lucky enough to have driven one –and the programme explains why they were so few – were wedded to it for life, So, the documentary asks, why did General Motors crush its fleet of EV1 electric vehicles into landfill sites in remote Arizona desert?

Geoffrey Macnab,  in his piece for The Guardian on the 4th August 2006, was not convinced that Paine’s documentary does justice to the subject.

If Chris Paine’s film were half as well designed as General Motors’ super-sleek, super-quick EV1 (the electric car whose demise it laments), it would be a film to cherish. Unfortunately, this documentary has been put together in such a clunky fashion that it mutes its own arguments and frequently risks stalling.

This is the story of how big business stifled the attempts to introduce an electric car programme in California in the mid 1990s. Paine has assembled an impressive array of interviewees. These range from former EV drivers such as Mel Gibson (relaxed, witty and not in the slightest belligerent) to journalists, environmental activists, politicians, engineers and even ex-CIA boss R James Woolsey.

What they have to say is often fascinating. The problem is that Paine hasn’t found a way to organise his talking heads. The whodunit conceit is didactic and contrived. There is a suspicion, too, that many of those drivers who lobbied to stop GM crushing their beloved EVs in landfill sites in Arizona weren’t doing so out of eco-altrusim. The real reason was simply that they had fallen in love with their beautiful cars and wanted them back.

For all it’s flaws, Paine’s film does give us some insight into why GM and Wagoner failed to capatilise on the EV1’s obvious strengths


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