How Car Companies Can Avoid the Dark Side: Electric Cars

By · October 22, 2013

Darth Vader and Dave Barthmuss

Darth Vader and Dave Barthmuss

Dave Barthmuss, General Motors spokesman, stood up to the microphone at last week’s meeting of the Western Journalists Association (WAJ) in San Jose, Calif. Before uttering a word, he paused, surveyed the room of writers, and let out a sigh of relief. Dave then reminded the crowd how far that he and GM had come in the last seven years—from the time, as he put it, he was portrayed as the Darth Vader character in the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which chronicled the infamous crushing of EV1 electric cars, and the ensuing demise of a previous generation of EVs.

The focus of the WAJ session was to discuss the future direction of eco-friendly car technologies. Dave said that, just five years ago, when appearing at events like this, the only story he could tell was that GM’s fledgling hybrids would save the most fuel by being applied to large SUVs and buses. Or he could have talked about the company’s pilot project to put hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road. At the time, those programs looked speculative and anemic. (They still do.) The official GM story sounded bad in those days, especially in the wake of the EV1 debacle and in light of Toyota’s success with the Prius gas-electric hybrid, which was selling like hotcakes.

Dave breathed that sigh of relief, because today he can tell a much better story—of the Chevy Volt—the extended-range electric car that remains leagues ahead of other plug-in hybrids and sells at a steady clip of nearly 25,000 units a year. He can also talk about the Chevy Spark EV, with its impressive torque and accessible price tag. (I drove it for the first time in San Jose. One word review: Quick.) Dave can also point to the upcoming dramatic Cadillac ELR that will bring range-extending electric technology to the company’s bold luxury brand.

Mission accomplished for Mr. Barthmuss, Bob Lutz, and the other creators of the Chevy Volt. The goal of the Volt, as described in in a recent business white paper by Professor Dariush Rafinejad’s of San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School, was “to develop a game changing product that surpassed the competition and laid the foundation for GM leadership in electric propulsion systems of the future.”

Halos and Masks

The chief competition of the day was Toyota. It’s extraordinary to consider how, in a matter of a few years, Toyota is now viewed as the technology laggard, offering the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid with a fraction of the electric capabilities of the Volt. When I recently argued that the new Toyota RAV4 EV deserves recognition as perhaps the most potent mix of utility, affordability, driving range, and kick-ass acceleration among all electric cars on the market today, I got slapped back by the EV community that—despite the merits of the car—can’t abide support of Toyota for its lack of commitment to decent electric car production volume, and for its questionable support for hydrogen fuel cells over battery-electric vehicles.

The entire auto industry can learn a lot from Dave Vader. First, fighting electric cars is a step to the Dark Side. And more seriously, in the car business, public perception matters a lot! There appears to be a mystical energy surrounding certain cars—often in the auto industry referred to as a halo. It is anything but fixed and permanent. A company (or a car or a person) deserving of a halo one year might be cast as evil the following year.

The reverse is also true. Redemption is possible. For Dave Barthmuss, the decision of his company to offer plug-in electric cars is all it took to make everybody see that he really was a good guy all along.


· · 4 years ago

Not trying to make the volt owners mad but i would never consider that technology 40 miles of pure electric then basically 35 mpg. The spark pure an simple compliance car. He should hide his head in shame. The only thing positive for electric car fans was the announcement to produce 200 mile car under 30k and thats only talk. Bullshiting a bunch of reporters isn't going to work with the public as it has with the media.

· · 4 years ago

A couple of years ago - prior to widespread availability of the Volt - I penned a few disparaging words on this blog about Dave . . . and I have some regret for being so hypercritical then. The Volt really is the real deal. Dave and GM should be proud.

That said, I do wish (as many others here have asked) for Chevy to put their Voltec drive train into more of a real people and/or light cargo carrier . . . a minivan or smaller SUV of some sort. I would think this would be a natural evolution. Trump the Prius V, GM.

The EVR is a complete non-starter for me . . . little more a Volt with gold-plated filigree.

The Spark EV? Yes . . . now, sadly, basically a Compliafornia Car. As with jah, I'll be excited to see what's coming up in a few years in regards to a 30K/200 mile all-electric and how it will compare to the similar benchmark that Tesla has announced for that time frame.

· · 4 years ago

"Not trying to make the volt owners mad but i would never consider that technology 40 miles of pure electric then basically 35 mpg"

Well, you are making them bad by "misleading" the facts.

Among all PHEV, Volt has the most EV range. 35mpg is city MPG. Its combined MPG is 37 and 40 MPG for the hwy. Sure, it is NOT as high as some other hybrids, but at the end of the day, most Volt owners are getting that MPG in real life, unlike C-Max Energi.

If you look at the EPA rate, no gasoline or diesel car beat the VOLT in all three EPA rating of 35/37/40. Among all hybrids, there are only few models that beat Volt in all three rating, but none of them have the EV range.

With the ~69% of Volt owners on EV miles only, that MPG hardly ever makes an impact.

Considering the range on the i3 with REx, it is only good for about 33mpg (80 miles for 2.4 gallon). But nobody cares since it has about double the EV range of Volt at 80miles...

· · 4 years ago

If you think Toyota is asleep in the wings, forgetaboutit. They ain't. You can bet their FC cars were designed with an alternative fuel device in mind, a traction battery. After all a FC car is an EV with a fuel cell and H2 tank fitted in place of a battery and a plug.

They will be out with a excellent EV when the smell of money looms strong in that segment of the business and the profits from their ICEs and Hybrids declines. It's all about maximizing profits. Right now, everyone, including Nissan, is going slow, counting beans, waiting for the "Better Battery" and watching the market demand develop. Yes, Nissan has a step on the others; but, they could lose that easily by not staying ahead in battery technology.

Hydrogen gas and Fuel Cells are smoke, PR and political pay offs. And, they and the necessary compressed hydrogen are way too expensive and complicated to be practical. Pay no attention

· · 4 years ago

Fotajoye was on a roll, and then it appears an agent from Toyota suddenly cut him off

GM is definitely in the EV game and it's nice to see their spokespeople feel good about it. As Fotajoye mentioned before he got the hook, it's all about maximizing profits, and I sense GM is setting themselves up to approach the market where profit can best be made. I think they are shifting their EV focus away from the Chevrolet brand and toward Cadillac. The ELR is merely meant to get Cadillac into the game, and I predict GM will expand Cadillac's role in their EV program to where it will be the primary brand at GM where new technologies hit the market.

Tesla taught GM a lesson about where to target the market with expensive technology. Wouldn't it be nice to see electrification return Cadillac legitimately to being The Standard of the World as they once were, long ago.

· · 4 years ago

'Hydrogen gas and Fuel Cells are smoke, PR and political pay offs. And, they and the necessary compressed hydrogen are way too expensive and complicated to be practical. Pay no attention.'

That sounds remarkably similar to the criticism of the Prius hybrid system when Toyota introduced it.

Presumably fotajoye is far better qualified and has more expertise than those know-nothing engineers at Toyota, and at just about every other car maker on the planet, including Nissan.

· · 4 years ago

Modern you are right i did mislead the numbers GM was to get 40 miles of pure electric driving before the 2013 it was somewhere around 34 so gm bumped there batteries up to maybe 36 electric driving.

· · 4 years ago

"Presumably fotajoye is far better qualified and has more expertise than those know-nothing engineers at Toyota, and at just about every other car maker on the planet, including Nissan."

You may want to add Elon Musk to your list of know-nothings, Davemart. fotajoye's words regarding fuel cells are a carbon copy of Teslas's CEO at a recent German press conference (at the 29:00 to 30:45 in the embedded video) . . .

Also, Toyota is very much involved in advanced research with solid state (non-liquid electrolyte) batteries . . .

· · 4 years ago

I am a Volt owner and that comment did make me mad.

I owned a Leaf and in cold weather it would give me only 55 miles of range (with heater off ). I had to sell it at a great loss because it was just not an option for me. 95% of my driving is less than 20 miles but for the last 5% I need a car that can keep going after the battery runs out and the Volt is that car for me.

I achieves my goals of driving electrical while still being able to do all the driving I need to do.

The Volt is an awesome electrical car that works for people who can not get a second ICE vehicle (and can not afford a Tesla).

· · 4 years ago

Thats the problem, the car manufacturers have put out a sub par product and expect the public to embrace the high prices and no range with open arms. Then when they can't sell these things they will cry the blues about no one will buy. I want to buy a electric cars that will meet my needs only tesla produceds that but its to expensive. I mean what I said all car companies should hide there heads in shame ( tesla not included) with the car they have produced. I can't help that you guys fell for the bullshit they produce.the average American is not buying it.

· · 4 years ago

Dave is a good guy!! Thanks for writing this article. In a very, very small way, I feel bad for Toyota. They produced the car that proved to the world that electric cars were a viable alternative, and now they are betting it all on the hydrogen. Yikes!!

· · 4 years ago


Again, maybe I need to tune up my flame torch.. Just keep lying about the Volt and it will make you look dumber by the second.

You wrote;

"Modern you are right i did mislead the numbers GM was to get 40 miles of pure electric driving before the 2013 it was somewhere around 34 so gm bumped there batteries up to maybe 36 electric driving."

Pre 2013, EPA rating was 35 EV mile range. 2013 and 2014 has 38 miles EV range.

My 2012 model easily get 40 miles EV range daily. 2012 Volt owners get easily between 30 miles and 50 miles of EV range. With heat and cold temperature, the range can be as long as 20s, but with good condtion and better driving, the EV range can be as high as 55-60miles.

So, keep on lying...

· · 4 years ago


Again, it seems like you have personal issu with Volt or GM. Tesla is great at its range,but it cost 2x more than Volt.

75% of American drives less than 40 miles per day. Perfect for most American.

Fact, NO OTHER gasoline or diesel cars beat Volt in all three EPA rating of gas mpg. Hybrids that have better gas mpg don't have any EV range. Plugin hybrids that have better MPG has less than HALF the EV range. BEVs with better effiicency has WORSE performance. The one that has better performance than Volt and chepaer is ONLY Spark EV, which has lower safety rating. The only other two EVs with better performance are Model S and eRav4 which has lower efficiency rating and much higher price.

So, if you want a best combination between price, performance, efficiency and safety, the Volt is the BEST ONE on the market today.

That is also why Volt is the BEST SELLING plugin car in the US today.

Don't we wish a better Volt is here? Absolutely!!!! Do I wish for a better mpg and 60 miles EV range and lower price? Absolutely. But don't take away from what Volt has accomplished today.

· · 4 years ago

Thanks, Kitty (and Brad). As Bob would sing, "... All I ever had: Redemption songs ..."

The Volt is the real deal (I am consistently getting more than 50-miles range), and the Spark EV is a blast to drive, and the ELR is just a beautiful design.

And I'll take Dave Vader over Barth Vader any day (onward, upward)!

· · 4 years ago

As a hired mouthpiece for a corporation he is paid to say what the company wants said. What he says is not his opinion or necessarily even true. More than likely his appearance is the most critical aspect of his individuality that has landed him this lucrative potition. I doubt too that he has any feelings about what he says and what other people say about him since he is after all a media professional that knows information is controlled so that manipulation of the potential customer base can be accomplished. He looks like an older fatter Dick Clark, and I suspect that happenstance of genetics is the primary reason he is where he is. As the mouthpiece for GM he should not be shocked when people who know reality are displeased with what he says. We are not all brainwashed followers of the corporation and their politicians.

· · 4 years ago

@brotherkenny, you cannot know reality when you continue living in a state of denial. You might consider updating yourself by losing those faded old pictures from the past which prevent you from living in the present world.

· · 4 years ago

Have you, brotherkenny, spent anytime actually driving a Volt? You really should give
the car an honest test drive before you completely slam it.

It's also a bit over the top to read your personal smear of Dave Barthmuss. One can advance legitimate criticisms on the slow rollout of electric cars from the big OEMs without such childish histrionics.

· · 4 years ago

My question to all volts fans, why is this car not sold out like tesla . Im still guessing the general population has a poblem with the technology, Its just not what they are lookimg for.

· · 4 years ago

ModernMarvelFan said: " 35mpg is city MPG. Its combined MPG is 37 and 40 MPG for the hwy."

Maybe you can explain this to me; If an EV gets better MPGe in the city, then why doesn't the range extender also get better MPG in the city?

· · 4 years ago

maybe MMF can explain better but here are some of my thoughts:
Hybrids do well and sometimes a little better in city. While on highway the deceleration and little regen braking put energy into battery to benefit the car later while in city driving in EV mode. BEV's and Volt don't benefit in the same way. But I agree with you that the range extender should yield better MPG in city. One possibility I can think of is based on my experience. While in city the range extender(RE) is frequently turning on and off (stop signs / lights / tapping brake) whereas at highway speed the RE only turns off when it feels the battery soc has gotten high enough. Maybe the software is too aggressive at turning the RE off? Also, I notice that if I use the RE for only a few miles that the MPG is around 30 maybe due to inefficiency when the enging is cold? But if I run the RE for many miles I can get 40-42MPG whether or not I'm driving in the city or on the highway.

· · 4 years ago

It seems to me GM has everything in its parts bin to push electrification, but they choose not to do it. Some may beg to differ, but let's break it down by major "initiative". Voltec does truly "crack the code" for a viable EV solution, because it lets many drivers operate exclusively on electricity day-to-day, while working perfectly well on the open road with very good fuel-based range. But GM only offers it in the Volt, a car with such limited cargo space that long range travel is only feasible for singles and childless couples. That still might work for a number of buyers if it was also suitable for ferrying four adults around town, but the battery-compromised back seat is only comfortable for children or teenagers (or the otherwise slender of build). For some reason, GM's idea for broadening Voltec's market is putting it in a $75k+ luxury coupe, where it fares rather badly in comparison with Tesla's capacious BEV sedans. Whatever happened to the MPV5, the Voltec configuration most likely to appeal to the broadest audience?

The Spark EV, meanwhile, earns great reviews as a spritely urban EV runabout. But GM refuses to bring it to market, instead limiting deliveries to CA and OR in the bare minimum quantities needed to satisfy their ZEV quota.

While leaving Voltec to languish overstuffed in undersized bodies and the Spark EV exiled to left coast compliance duty, GM has resurrected the Big Lie of H2 fuel cells being the REAL answer, this time to launch yet another attack on CARB's (now multi-state) ZEV standards (because, GM explains, BEVs aren't practical and the standards should wait until the newer gooder H2FC stuff is ready - what a bold new idea!).

So sure, I won't deny that GM has developed decent technology for electrification. I would, however, argue strongly that they have not demonstrated a commitment to bringing attractive products to market and selling them aggressively. Until they stop the H2FC charade, ship BEVs nationwide, and put Voltec into a configuration viable for a larger market segment, I think their defenders have a lot of explaining to do.

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