The Chevy Volt, GM chief Daniel Akerson told members of Congress today, was not engineered “to be a political punching bag.”
Well, not every product turns out exactly as engineered. The Volt, designed as America’s first mass-market plug-in electric vehicle, is certainly a technical marvel. It drives 35 miles on its initial electric charge, then can travel another 300 plus miles with a small gas engine driving its electric motor.
It’s also the highest-profile green vehicle on the market, assembled by union members in a blue state by a company that has received tens of billions in government aid from two different presidents.
A fat target: Under the circumstances, it’s inevitable that somebody would take a swing at the Volt. Rush Limbaugh, in fact, began deriding the Volt as an “Obama Motors” boondoggle, not worthy of his paid endorsement, even before the car went on sale. Today, GOP members of Congress joined the parade at a hearing intended to blow as much smoke as possible about a vehicle fire discovered in a Chevy Volt last June.
A subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee summoned Akerson and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland for a hearing ominously titled: “Volt Vehicle Fires: What did NHTSA know When Did They Know it?”
I tuned in on the committee’s webcam in time to see plenty of punches thrown. Just not from the usual directions.
GOP members of the subcommittee – who typically fume about the stifling effects of too much government regulation – tried to build a case that NHTSA was too easy on GM during the probe into the Volt fires. They also went after Akerson, a registered Republican who backed John McCain in 2008, about supposed backchannel ties to the Obama Administration.
It fell to Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), the panel’s ranking Democrat and typically one of the most anti-corporate members of Congress, to defend GM (which this month again became the world’s top-selling automaker.) I’ve always thought of Kucinich as a bit loopy, but today he was prepared with supporting documents and well-researched questions.
So was Rep. Jim Jordan, (R-Oh), chair of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending. But even a mountain of research can’t enlarge the molehill that is the story of the post-crash test Volt fire. It took place after a vehicle was smashed by a battering ram, then turned upside down and rotated in all directions for several hours. This vehicular torture – which would never happen to a real driver on a real road – led to a coolant leak from the car’s electric battery. This, in turn, caused a short circuit and sparked a fire at a salvage lot three weeks after the crash test was over.
Can’t catch a fire: Once the fire was discovered, both NHTSA and GM tried to recreate the conditions which led to the problem – but even after smashing up several more cars, they couldn’t get the darn things to catch fire again. Eventually, NHTSA tried something even more medieval, pulling the Volt battery out of its car body and piercing it with a steel rod. This procedure finally got a fire going, and at that point – in November – the agency opened a formal safety probe.
Last Friday, the agency concluded that there was “no discernible defect” in the Volt. A GM plan to reinforce the battery housing, investigators said, eliminated any potential risk to consumers.
It takes a while to torture a vehicle, much less several, and NHTSA chose not to say anything publicly about the initial Volt vehicle fire until they could figure out how it happened. This is standard procedure, apparently, when the agency doesn’t know the cause of a problem, or if a problem really exists.
Flaming members: It’s much easier, it turns out, to set a Congressman’s hair on fire than it is to ignite a Chevy Volt. The ostensible point of this morning’s exercise was to probe the six month delay between the June fire and the public announcement of a formal safety probe in November. In between, Bloomberg News got the story; Jordan seized on the fact that a wire service made the information public before NHTSA did:
The delay raises significant concerns about the political relationship between the Obama Administration and GM… GM has emerged [from the federal auto rescue] as a quasi-private entity, and President Obama has used this unusual blurring to openly tout GM as one of his administration’s success stories. It’s creating a dynamic where the president is politically reliant on the success of GM.
In addition to probing whether NHTSA had been instructed to go easy on Obama’s favorite carmaker, Jordan asked if news of the Volt fire had been delayed to avoid spoiling the announcement of new fuel economy rules that will boost the U.S. fleet to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
NHTSA administrator Strickland parried Jordan as best he could, insisting that safety is the agency’s core mission, that no politics were involved, and pointing out that NHTSA is prohibited by law from mandating which technology carmakers use to meet fuel economy requirements. Most of the progress, he pointed out, will come from internal combustion engines, not electric vehicles.
I thought Strickland handled himself well, considering that Jordan badgered him pretty thoroughly, the way a guy in charge of a microphone can. The congressman made it hard for the safety chief to finish a sentence by consistently interrupting his answers with new questions.
Posture or principle? There’s no real question about the safety of the Volt. NHTSA is satisfied with GM’s proposed battery fix, and the vehicle has received a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS.) These are the folks who pay the bills when something bad happens; if they’re convinced the car is safe, that’s good enough for me.
What I’d like to know is: Are the GOP members of Congress just trying to score points against Obama? Or do they really believe this stuff?
A bit of both, I suppose. The real problem conservatives have with the government rescue of GM and Chrysler is how well it worked. Thanks to an infusion of government cash – and smart, fast action by Obama’s Auto Task Force – companies that very nearly died are alive again, making profits and hiring people.
If you’re a free market conservative, that’s not how the world is supposed to function. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), a member of the House subcommittee, is also a Chevrolet and Cadillac dealer. He personally would have lost a small fortune if Presidents Bush and Obama hadn’t provided last- gasp financing to GM in 2008 and 2009, when no private lender would touch the company. But he still can’t stomach the whole idea:
This is taxpayers’ money, not some benevolent monarch that showers favors on people; we take it out of taxpayers’ pockets. I’m appalled by this attitude that we have the ability to pick and choose winners with taxpayers money. I’m deeply offended that this merry go-round is going to continue… It has nothing to do with Mr. Akerson; it has to do with an administration that can’t keep its fingers out of the pie.
The last laugh: Daniel Akerson, meanwhile, doesn’t have much time to worry about competing theories of government intervention in the economy. He’s got to move some metal.
When Rep. Elijah Cummings asked Akerson whether today’s hearing itself could cause “collateral damage”, the CEO seized the moment:
I view this as a positive, our chance to get this before the American people, to get our story out. You’ve given us a fair hearing, and we’ve taken out ads today [for the Volt.] There has been collateral damage; we’ve got to work hard to get back [our credibility]. Today is a good start.
Maybe the free-market folks should observe how customers are behaving. A Google search on “Chevy Volt vehicle fires” during the month of December turned up 294,000 news stories. The month of December, it so happens, was the best month ever for Volt sales. GM sold more than 1,500 of them in December, up 34 % from November when the story first broke.
The Volt has a ways to go to become a mass market vehicle, much less meet GM’s near-term sales targets. But for early adopters who are interested in EVs, the car’s appeal has not been dented by political punches – or by scary stories about events that will never happen to real drivers.
RK, Jan. 25 2012