What’s good for General Motors…

You’re watching the Olympics and finding yourself bedazzled by the feats of utterly dedicated, amazing athletes when a commercial intervenes, likewise promising a bedazzling feat, this one by a major U.S. corporation. It’s the sort of thing that just could alter American lives for the better.

The TV scene is a broad meadow with steeply rising mountains in the background, and first there is a small, rural gas station of many years back, and then a bigger one, and then even fancier ones. Soon there are words about progress and about a car to come in 2010 — the Chevy Volt — and how it can successfully evade the gas pump for surprising distances. The final building on your screen disappears. Progress is the return of a pristine-looking meadow.

OK, you say. General Motors is hyping a product. So what? To get the complete answer, you would need to read a superbly executed Jonathan Rauch piece in the July/August Atlantic Monthly, but here is an abbreviated version. This gigantic but much-pummeled corporation is staking a goodly portion of its future on developing a car that may never work. The risk is summed up in the need for a kind of miracle battery doing things no battery has ever done before. But if GM gets there, my oh my, what an incredible vehicle you just might have.

"If it (the Volt) meets specifications," Rauch writes, "it will charge up overnight from any standard electrical socket. It will go 40 miles on a charge. Then a small gasoline engine will ignite. The engine’s sole job will be to drive a generator, whose sole job will be to maintain the battery’s charge — not to drive the wheels, which will never see anything but electricity. In generator mode, the car will drive hundreds of miles on a tank of gas, at about 50 miles per gallon. But about three-fourths of Americans commute less than 40 miles a day, so on most days most Volt drivers would use no gas at all."

Several things strike me about all of this, not the least of which is the free market riding to the rescue in an energy crisis that not a few people blame on the free market, or at least on dastardly capitalists doing greedy things with the connivance of corrupt politicians. General Motors itself was slammed when it rid itself of the EV1, an electric car it had developed but found it couldn’t sell.

Companies are in business to make money, and GM was going to take a bath. Some outsiders think differently, but outsiders never know as much about a company as the company itself. If General Motors had had a chance with this product, it would not have said goodbye to it.

I don’t make this argument in stalwart, broad defense of the U.S. auto industry, which has much to answer for. But it is a historically demonstrated fact that businesses and consumers responding to circumstances will time and again solve problems that defy the wisdom of central planners, who seldom if ever know enough to fix things without unintended consequences.

A prime example of government fumbling was Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that were enacted in the 1970s and mandated that car fleets must consume less gasoline per mile. The auto industry met the criteria with smaller cars, which happened to be more dangerous in accidents than larger cars. Estimates have put increased highway deaths at tens of thousands of people.

During this election year, both parties have made electoral hay with condemnations of Big Oil, which is part of the solution to our expensive gasoline, not the problem, and many liberals especially — in this seeming hour of their ascendancy — have spoken of businesses in vile terms. In General Motors, we have a business that is daring much and could play a large role in addressing an issue that poses perils to pocketbook, the environment and national security. Let’s hope this gamble pays off.


(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)