Though he retired from General Motors (NYSE:GM) in 2010, former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz’s work at the company is still resonating today in the hands of CEO Dan Akerson, who will soon be replaced by Mary Barra. Of the projects that occurred with Lutz at the company, one of the more contentious ones was likely the Chevrolet Volt, a compact lift-back-type sedan that can operate on electric power for a limited period of time before using a gasoline generator.
However, according to a recent interview that Lutz gave with The Seattle Times, Lutz — now 81 years old — said the Volt should never have been a small sedan. It should have been, he said, a pickup truck.
“We started at the wrong end,” Lutz told the Times. ”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 [miles per gallon] vehicle and make it electric than it does to take a full-size pickup or SUV, which in town realistically gets 11 to 12 [miles per gallon]. If you take that to 100 [miles per gallon], now you’re really saving money and saving a scarce natural resource and reducing CO2 emissions drastically.”
Though his time at GM is over, Lutz is making another attempt at an electric truck through his work with VIA Motors, where he sits on the board. VIA is hoping to start production on an extended-range electric truck, cargo van, and passenger van, all of which share a similar powertrain to the Volt. Reportedly, the VIA Motors VTRUX can travel 40 miles as a pure electric vehicle and up to 400 miles with the help of a gas-powered generator.
On top of being more beneficial from an environmental and consumption point of view, Lutz also believes an electric truck makes far more sense in a very real-world manner. “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,” he told the Times.
Lutz’s comments are especially relevant as recently, California-based Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) has also expressed a desire to produce an electric pickup. In addition to the obvious fuel savings, electric motors boast substantial amounts of torque at low RPMs, making them ideal for towing large amounts of weight.
Lutz sees electric powertrains as being an increasingly important part of the automotive landscape in the future. “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,” he said to The Seattle Times, adding that “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.”
However, in order for EVs to experience the same kind of market acceptance that jets enjoy now, electric and hybrid powertrains will have to prove their worth beyond small cars and beyond luxury sedans like the Tesla — they will have to be reliable workhorses too, a perception that Lutz is trying to push with VIA, which converts existing GM vehicles into extended-range hybrids.
Additionally, Lutz contends that had hybrid and EV technology been applied first to trucks and SUVs, it wouldn’t have the tree-hugging green stigma the vehicles are now associated with, which some buyers might find to be off-putting.
As for VIA’s future plans, it may take some time before consumers can begin stocking their garages with its products, as the company is hoping to cash in on demand for efficient fleet vehicles first. “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,” Lutz said to the Times. “The SUV will be next, first to fleets and the limo market, then to retail.”
He continued to the publication: “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.”