The great, unanswerable question in "Electro-Shock Therapy," Jonathan Rauch's long and interesting look in the Atlantic at GM's efforts to transform the automobile industry with the über-hybrid Chevy Volt, is whether GM will pull it off. Americans have learned not to expect much from their car companies, and no amount of hype from GM executives, or "failure is not an option" assertions from GM engineers, will convince us differently.
Only the real thing -- a stylish, high-mileage automobile charging up from an ordinary electric socket -- will do the trick. If Volts start battling Priuses for Berkeley parking spots, then we can talk. But we won't get a glimmer of that reality until at least 2010. So while stories such as Rauch's make for good reading, they are ultimately a little unsatisfying -- something Rauch knows as well as anybody. His most telling line, near the end of the piece, "I was looking at the Barack Obama of automobiles -- everyone's hope for change," acknowledges as much. We can invest as much optimism as we want in the prospect of the truly revolutionary electric car -- but we're still forced to wait and see.
To me, the most promising hint about the future came not from the GM engineers frantically testing new battery designs, but from the reaction of the rest of the automobile industry to the Volt hype.
Despite its head start, GM will have to fight to be first. In January, after a year of watching GM bask in the Volt's publicity, Toyota reacted. At the 2008 Detroit auto show, Katsuaki Watanabe, the president, announced that Toyota would produce a lithium-ion plug-in car of its own, and would have it on the street in test fleets "not at the end of 2010, but earlier than that." Toyota was talking about a few hundred experimental cars in a controlled setting, not tens of thousands of cars in dealer showrooms, a much less ambitious goal than GM's. But Toyota is famous for under-promising and over-delivering.
In February, Tesla, the Silicon Valley company, announced plans for an electric sedan with a gasoline-powered generator, like the Volt -- but set to arrive a year earlier, in late 2009. In March, BMW said it might produce an electric car for the U.S. market, and in May, Nissan said it would have one in test fleets in 2010. The drumbeat seems likely to continue. Simply by announcing the Volt, GM has attracted a bevy of competitors, bringing the electric car's mass-market advent from over the horizon to around the corner.
GM might not save itself with the Volt, but electric cars are coming. And with the price of oil hitting a new intraday high record of $143.67 on Monday, it won't be a moment too soon.