From the President
One of the most amazing days of my professional life was the day more than a decade ago that I spent as keynote speaker for a conference of the people in charge of General Motors’ environmental policies and procedures in plants around North America. There were hundreds of them, many of whom had Ph.D.’s. They were very interested and supportive when faced with an unedited speaker advocating stronger environmental policies and complete disclosure of results. On another day, a visit with the General Motors’ crash test dummies, watching steering wheel columns hurtle into the surrogate humans in car seats at various speeds, became a memorable experience. It was pretty ugly and very sobering. Those of us on the Ceres dialogue team probably all changed our driving habits that day.
In dealing with General Motors through Ceres, the people we met were often second or third-generation, really terrific, farsighted GM people who would retire from the company on what used to be generous benefits.
But I have also watched the top management of this giant company veer from one policy to another, clumsily, in an effort to survive the serious global transportation and energy questions that seemed to surprise many of them. Their reactions have often seemed primitive and shortsighted or even, at times, mean-spirited. General Motors is a company of contradictions.
The latest weird, attention-getting gaffe came from one Robert Lutz, Vice Chairman of Global Product Development, who recently called climate change a “crock of shit.” He has had a reputation of ignoring environmental concerns; years ago, at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show, Lutz had said that the hybrid did not “make environmental or economic sense.” In the past few days, the company has attempted to paper over these statements through an aggressive campaign claiming that Lutz’s opinion about climate change “doesn’t count” and, from his own blog, “my goal is to take the automotive industry out of the debate entirely. GM is working on just that – and we’re going to keep working on it – via E85, hybrids, hydrogen, and fuel cells, and the electrification of the automobile.”
But piling right on this annoying verbosity from Lutz was the announcement that GM is rearranging the duties of the three top managers in part to give CEO Rick Wagoner more time for “environmental lobbying,” which would include defeating clean air legislation. Wagoner was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last week as saying there’s more “advocacy work” to be done with regard to California’s attempt to implement its own tough tailpipe emissions rules.
GM lost their place as the number one automobile manufacturer in the world to Toyota in 2007. Toyota is no angel company (see Susan Baker Martin’s cover story), with a fleet that includes some huge cars, but they scored with the Prius and helped move the public to accept hybrid cars on the road. I have no idea, after years of working around General Motors, what makes them tick – or not tick! I know one thing, though. I hope the smart women and men with imagination and foresight at GM prevail because I don’t want to see this company disappear.