Bob Lutz has worked for BMW, Ford, Chrysler and, most famously, General Motors, where he served as vice chairman until 2009 before retiring from GM altogether in 2010.
He now serves on the board of Utah-based VIA Motors, which will soon start production on an extended-range electric truck, cargo van and passenger van using a similar powertrain to the Chevrolet Volt. The VIA Motors VTRUX can travel 40 miles as a pure electric vehicle and up to 400 miles using a gas generator.
The 81-year-old Lutz talked about his legacy and his latest business venture in a recent interview.
Q.: Do you think the Volt should have been a truck, not a sedan?
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A: We started at the wrong end. The whole automotive industry made the intellectual mistake of thinking EVs were all about maximum range, so we all started with small vehicles that are basically very economical anyway. Yes, you do save fuel. You can use a smaller battery, but it makes less sense to take a 40 mpg vehicle and make it electric than it does to take a full-size pickup or SUV, which in town realistically gets 11 to 12 mpg. If you take that to 100 mpg, now you’re really saving money and saving a scarce natural resource and reducing CO2 emissions drastically.
The realization came to me suddenly late that the right place to electrify is at the heavy end, with full-size pickups and SUVs, which America loves but which are a somewhat endangered species with fuel-economy regulations.
Q: Do you think electric vehicles would have the same marginalized, tree-hugging reputation if they had started with pickups instead of small passenger vehicles?
A: It would have changed it. Bigger trucks are the only electrified vehicles that I know of that make instant economic sense because the fuel saving is so large that you will more than get back your monthly lease price.
The other feature is exportable power. Every one of these trucks has power outlets. Imagine a suburban homeowner owning a Chevy Tahoe with VIA technology. If you have a power outage, you go out and start your truck and plug in. You don’t have to buy an emergency generator. You’ve got a week’s worth of power.
Q: You’ve said some critical things about hybrid vehicles in the past. Is your embrace of EVs now a reflection of your concern about your legacy?
A: I am what I am. To some people, I am the environmental anti-Christ because I own and fly a former military jet fighter. I have what is known as a very large carbon footprint. I like high-powered cars like Corvette ZR1s, but on the other hand people have trouble figuring me out because I’m also deeply involved and a believer in vehicle electrification. Unlike previous hybrids with little economic return, extended range EVs make economic sense for both the automaker and the consumer.
Q: How do you reconcile that?
A: They’re all interesting technologies. I like vehicle electrification because it will in the future be, by far, the most efficient propulsion form, and electric vehicles are great to drive. They’re quiet. They have enormous power. The only problem today is they don’t have enough range.
Q: When did you decide that electrification is the end game, rather than hydrogen or some other alternative fuel, in terms of fuel-efficient vehicles?
A: It was a gradual turning point. I’ve always been receptive to new technology, but what annoyed me in 2005, 2006 was all of this credit that Toyota was getting for the Prius. Only the Japanese, only Toyota could do this. General Motors had hybrids like that running in 1968. We just never elected to produce them because it was a bad business proposition. That was a mistake. But I continually said, ‘We need to do something to get GM’s reputation for advanced technology back.’
In the old days, advanced technology meant more and more horsepower. Lately, advanced technology means producing an effective hybrid or electrified vehicle. That’s now the cutting edge of technology.
Piston engines are great. They’re fun. They’ll continue to evolve, but they’re kind of old hat. It’s sort of like living through aviation when aviation went from the propeller age to the jet age.
I was trained in propeller airplanes, and a lot of the old-time, propeller-driven fighter pilots who flew Corsairs in WWII said those jets are effeminate. There’s no big engine out there and no noise and no oil smoke, but I found that once I got in a jet, they were vastly superior.
Early jets were the same as today’s early electric vehicles. The range wasn’t there. The fuel consumption was way up. The reliability was poor, et cetera, and now for long-range transportation we wouldn’t think of anything but a jet aircraft.
Q: What’s the relationship between General Motors and VIA Motors, which is converting not only the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, but also a luxury SUV and full-size van to electric range-extended vehicles?
A: It’s a positive, mutually supportive working relationship. VIA has the support of GM. Some aspects of the future working relationship still have to be worked out, but by and large, GM is happy to have us using their trucks for the conversions, so it’s a good relationship.
Q: What’s the rollout plan for the three VIA models announced so far?
A: The Chevy van, the Express, will be the first VIA production model because it’s what many fleets are most interested in, and then the pickup will be out the middle of next year. The SUV will be next, first to fleets and the limo market, then to retail.
Q: So you’re starting with fleet sales and will then expand to retail?
A: Fleets are our primary customers now. Retail will come soon after, but the total market in the U.S. between pickups, SUVs and vans is over 3 million units. Almost a quarter of the market is full-size trucks. It is the single-most-popular category of vehicle in the U.S. Most of those 3.7 million people will stay with the gas-powered version, but if 10 percent would go VIA, that would be 300,000 units.