Who Took GM's Car of the Future?

Chevy Volt summoned to answer a higher calling

Of the tens of thousands of car buffs who came to the LA Convention Center for the annual auto show, no doubt a good percentage of them wanted to see what is perhaps the world's most famous car not yet for sale: the prototype of the Chevy Volt, the cutting edge plug-in hybrid that many see as key to GM's future.

But final weekend visitors were disappointed to discover the Volt had vanished!

Had it been purloined in the middle of the night by a rival carmaker? Or worse yet, by a foreign agent? Nope. Turns out GM itself moved the Volt in response to a higher calling.

"They need it back in Washington," was the explanation offered on the show floor by a Chevrolet "Product Specialist." Under further questioning by show visitor Bob Hackl, the product specialist explained that GM top brass plan to make use of the Volt in a presentation to Congress.

GM and the other two members of Detroit's Big Three, Ford and Chrysler, are still trying to convince Congress to provide $25 billion of taxpayer money to assist the companies through the current economic crisis and keep them out of bankruptcy. But after their first presentation, the CEOs left empty handed. They were told to return with detailed business plans to justify public investment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, put it bluntly with a riff on that memorable "Jerry Maguire" scene: "Unless they can show us a plan, we can't show them the money."

The Volt is GM's showpiece for a new generation of vehicles that depend much less on fossil fuels and can be propelled solely by an electric motor. As a "plug-in" hybrid, also known as a "series" hybrid, the Volt is powered by batteries that can be charged from either an electrical outlet, or from the car's on-board gasoline engine driving a generator. GM says the Volt is designed to go 40 miles on a charge. Only if the driver wants to go farther without plugging in again would the gasoline engine need to kick in to charge the batteries. That's a significant advance beyond the current generation of hybrids, such as Toyota's Prius, which is propelled by a combination of engine and motor, and cannot run as a pure plug-in electric vehicle.

GM top brass want to show members of Congress the company has more than plans on paper--it already has a car of the future with breakthrough fuel efficiency and low emissions that lawmakers will see firsthand, and that customers will be able to buy in 2010. 

Back on the floor of the auto show, the product specialist revealed to Hackl that at this point in the Volt's development, GM has only one fully built up and running prototype--the car that was brought to the Los Angeles show. A second prototype is on display in Detroit's Renaissance Center. But that vehicle is not in running condition, and so would not suffice for the planned Capitol Hill demonstration. That's why the auto show car got the call.

But what about the auto show's Volt display? The product specialist informed Hackl that GM briefly considered shipping out the second Volt from Detroit to fill the void, but concluded it would not arrive before the end of the show's run.

What Chevy did have to display the final weekend was a partial Volt--chassis and running gear--plain to see because there was no bodywork. Rather than being disappointed, Hackl was thrilled at the chance to see the Volt's innards. "This is even cooler," he said as he leaned in for a closer look, hoping GM will survive long enough to bring the Volt to market so he can get one..

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