When General Motors was fingered as the prime suspect in the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Bob Lutz's inbox filled with hate mail. "I hope you rot in hell," read one missive to the GM vice chairman, known for his love of gas-guzzling sports cars. But now the movie's director wants Lutz to star in a possible sequel, "Who Saved the Electric Car?" "Now that they've done their mea culpa, I'm bullish on GM," says director Chris Paine. "I'd like to include Lutz in my next film."
What explains this turn of events? Lutz—the man who brought us the Dodge Viper muscle car and the 1,000-horsepower Cadillac Sixteen—has become the unlikely champion of the Chevy Volt, a 150mpg plug-in electric car that GM is fast-tracking for production in 2010. GM's car czar now admits he was wrong to dismiss the popular Toyota Prius hybrid as a PR ploy. Though he still loves fast cars (and fast fighter jets, which the ex-Marine flyboy pilots on weekends), Lutz, 75, is undergoing a green conversion in the twilight of his career. "I believe strongly that this country has to get off oil," he says, sitting beside a massive V-16 engine on display in his office. "The electrification of the automobile is inevitable."
Skeptics initially viewed the Volt as Lutz's own PR ploy. But they've come to believe in the plug-in, as GM has poured millions into developing a lithium-ion battery (like those in laptops) that will allow the car to go 40 miles on pure electricity before a tiny gasoline motor kicks in to recharge the battery. (It also can be juiced up by plugging it into a wall outlet for about six hours.)
But the biggest naysayers Lutz faced were inside his own company. After being burned by the failure of its EV1 electric car in the '90s (the subject of Paine's film), GM was gun-shy about plugging in again. When Lutz first proposed creating an electric car in 2003, the idea "bombed" inside GM, he says. "I got beaten down a number of times." After pouring billions into engineering futuristic fuel-cell cars (still years away from production), GM engineers didn't want to switch gears to a plug-in electric, which they insisted couldn't be run on lithium-ion batteries. The turning point came when tiny Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley start-up, announced in 2006 that it would produce a speedy electric sports car powered by those same laptop batteries. "That tore it for me," says Lutz. "If some Silicon Valley start-up can solve this equation, no one is going to tell me anymore that it's unfeasible."
So in 2006, Lutz formed a skunkworks team of engineers and designers to quickly cobble together the Chevy Volt concept car, which became the star of the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. And then he persuaded the brass to greenlight the Volt for production by arguing that they must try to seize the green high ground from Toyota, which is battling GM for the title of the world's No. 1 automaker. "We saw Toyota getting highly beneficial rub-off from their Prius success, which permitted them to cloak themselves in the mantle of total greenness," says Lutz. "This was starting to hurt because it was one reason for a sudden surge in Toyota's market share."
Now Lutz envisions selling hundreds of thousands of Volts a year, probably priced below $30,000. Detroit's horsepower jockey insists the Volt will be his crowning achievement—and his swan song. "This is like JFK's call for the moon shot," he says. "I want to stick around to see the Volt come to market. Then I'll pack it in around 80." And ride off into the sunset on electric power.