January 31, 2015
Back in January 2009, General Motors didn’t have money for a Super Bowl commercial, or even Super Bowl tickets. It was this close to being carried out on a cart.
But what if the company, subsisting then on a $13.4 billion emergency loan from the Bush administration, had somehow managed to scrape together $2.5 million and work up enough chutzpah to do one blowout 30-second commercial before sputtering again into government hands?
It could have been a golden opportunity to introduce the masses to the Chevy Volt and convey some hope about American innovation at a time of widespread despair.
I was reminded of this while watching a preview of a BMW i3 ad featuring Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric, onetime co-hosts of the “Today” show. It presents the i3, built in a wind-powered factory, as unsettlingly futuristic, as groundbreaking as the Internet itself. Sure piques your curiosity, doesn’t it?
Except that the i3 isn’t so futuristic. Battery-powered electric cars are more than a century old. Wind-powered machinery has been around awhile, too. Ask the Dutch.
BMW is merely boarding the same bandwagon that Nissan, GM and Tesla designed and built.
The Volt, by contrast, was the first of its kind, promising almost all of the benefits of an electric car with almost none of the drawbacks.
More innovative than the gas-electric hybrids of its time, the Volt introduced the idea of a hybrid electric vehicle that used its gasoline engine not to propel the car, but to charge the battery on the fly. That meant it could do all the things you’d expect a car to do, but in an entirely different way, and possibly without gasoline.
Just as the Apple Macintosh (remember that 1984 Super Bowl ad?) ushered in the era of point-and-click computing, the Volt opened the door to a practical plug-in car, one whose basic fueling infrastructure was already in place in every home, and every freeway interchange.
Formally unveiled in September 2008, the production Volt was well ahead of its time. Imagine if GM had been able to present it to the world on the biggest of stages, along with the proposition that the car of the future would be not just different, but better.
Instead, by the time the Volt made it to market in late 2010, post-bankruptcy, it was a political football, and a deflated one at that. Nearly scuttled in the restructuring, the Volt arrived on scene so identified with the Obama administration’s EV-happy clean-energy policies that critics made it out to be a joint venture of the Communist Party and the Sierra Club.
Its breakthrough technology -- ever misunderstood by the public and never well articulated by General Motors -- ceased to matter. The Volt was a boondoggle, Obamacare on wheels.
At this year’s Detroit auto show, the redesigned Volt stood unassumingly in a corner of the Chevrolet pavilion, overshadowed somewhat by a surprise long-range EV concept called the Bolt.
Meanwhile, Mercedes was up front and center near the entrance with its plug-in hybrid C class, prominently labeled in all-caps. To be plugged in, it seems, is to be cool.
The Volt may have missed its Super Bowl moment. But its time has arrived.