THINKING OUT LOUD - The timely return of GM's electric powered car

Okay class, as we do from time to time, today we are starting with a pop quiz. Question 1: Which country is best known for manufacturing watches?
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 24, 2010

Okay class, as we do from time to time, today we are starting with a pop quiz.

Question 1: Which country is best known for manufacturing watches?

Answer: Switzerland. Of course. You think Swiss, you think cows, banks and watches.

Question 2: In which country was the electronic quartz movement watch invented?

Answer: Switzerland. According to Wikipedia: "The first prototypes of electronic quartz watches were made by the CEH research laboratory in Switzerland in 1962."

There is a point to this little quiz, class, and I will get to it momentarily.

I will start by chiding the Swiss. Was the electronic quartz movement watch a good idea? Well, I hope to tell you it was. Wikipedia again: "Quartz movements, even in their most inexpensive forms, are an order of magnitude more accurate than purely mechanical movements. Whereas mechanical movements can typically be off by several seconds a day, an inexpensive quartz movement in a child's wristwatch may still be accurate to within 500 milliseconds per day ten times better than a mechanical movement."

The Swiss invented it, but they were so heavily invested in making watches with mainsprings that they ignored their own new technology. Texas Instruments, on the other hand (so to speak), said: "Wait a second! (pun intended). Here is something that could revolutionize the world of timekeeping." And it did, much to the chagrin of thousands of Swiss craftsmen who lost their jobs. Too bad. They had the future right there and let it slip away.

That brings me to General Motors. You are certainly familiar with their troubles: closing factories (nine in the last seven years); laying off people left and right (more than 35,000 in the same time period); on track to drop into second place this year behind Toyota as the world's largest automobile maker.

In fact, a recent article in Newsweek was headlined: "Comin' Through! Toyota is on track to pass General Motors this year as the world's No. 1 auto company. How GM plans to fight back."

The first paragraph of that story is unsettling: "General Motors and Toyota were once neck-and-neck when it came to developing high-mileage, gasoline-electric hybrid cars. About a decade ago, you see, both firms had cracked the code on how to engineer a hybrid, and GM even had a running prototype." It goes on to say that Toyota saw the technology as important to their future and ran with it while GM saw it as impractical and gave up on it.

Well, hybrids are certainly not the answer for the auto industry. But, as Newsweek notes, the hybrid Toyota Prius will generate a small profit this year and "provides a halo for Toyota, making it appear as the world's greenest car-maker even as it rolls out its gas guzzling trucks. 'We made a bad decision,' GM vice chairman Bob Lutz now says. 'Being known as the technology laggard is not conducive to selling automobiles."

So here is General Motors's latest idea to catch up. "GM has given the go-ahead to the 150-miles-per gallon Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid that lit up the Detroit Auto Show this year." It can be ready to go in abut four years, says GM R&D chief Larry Burns.

According to Newsweek, "Burns now wishes GM hadn't killed the plug-in hybrid EV1 prototype his engineers had on the road a decade ago: 'If we could turn back the hands of time,' says Burns, 'we could have had the Chevy Volt 10 years earlier.'"

An electric car. What an idea. Similar in fact to the one they have at Tesla Motors in California where they have a fantastic looking, electric powered two seat sports car that will be shipping to customers this spring. And look at these numbers: 0 to 60 in four seconds; 250 mile operating range; equivalent of 135 mpg on a $2.50 electric charge.

We should probably not even fret over all the lost opportunity here; about what might have happened if GM (and other U.S. companies) had aggressively pursued alternate power for cars 10 (never mind 20) years ago; about how much closer we might be to rendering Iran and Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela completely irrelevant on the world stage.

Your assignment for next week, class, is to write a short essay on just how nice that would be. For now, however, my electronic quartz movement watch tells me it is time to go.