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Chevy Volt: Can GM lead again?

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General Motors announced that production is a “go” for its Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric car to be delivered in late 2010. The Volt’s unveiling last year was an automotive sensation.

In the 1990s, GM failed spectacularly with an electric vehicle called the EV1. This wasn’t a huge surprise. Impulsivity and intuitiveness—placing and winning big bets—marked GM’s early history. Over time, the company kept making bets but failed to follow through. The question today is whether GM has the doggedness and grit to win.

There is hope. GM points to Apple Computer, a tech company that had been lying on death’s door until its iPod hit the market.

Here are a few things going for GM:

  • Risk tolerance. It’s way up. In the normal course of developing a new car, the company already would have hundreds of Volts in testing on the road right now. The extremely compressed schedule won’t permit that luxury, which raises the risk.
  • Speed. In an entirely make-do process, engineers are designing the battery and the body at the same time. In Toyota-like fashion, improvements are made as fast as they’re conceived. The team works in a converted auditorium and initially shaved half a year off the schedule by making decisions on the spot, solving problems immediately and trusting its instincts. This is new stuff for GM.
  • Obsession. Leaving the conception stage and entering the execution stage was a humbling experience. Nasty surprises popped up. Earlier this year, the cooling system still leaked fluid and electricity. One engineer took a vacation but the battery dogged his dreams. Leading team members grew exhausted. If obsession can carry over into persistence, GM may yet win.
  • Paranoia. One of the best products of competition is psychological. Asked about Toyota’s new plans for a plug-in car, GM’s R&D chief says he’s “paranoid, because they’re good.”
  • Pride. Detroit has something to prove. If it can pull this off, GM will be a leader again—at least in one market, the only market that matters right now. Recalling Toyota’s announcement, GM happily calls its competitor “a follower.”

Stay tuned.

—Adapted from “Electro-Shock Therapy,” Jonathan Rauch, The Atlantic.

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