GM's Fifteen Minutes of Leadership On Plug-Ins May be Up

A research analyst I know said he was doing some work in California recently, and heard over and over again from consumers that they viewed General Motors and Ford as dowdy and inferior to Toyota specifically because neither company offered hybrid vehicles.

But of course, the consumers were wrong. Ford and GM both offer hybrid vehicles. In fact, Ford beat Toyota in offering a gas-electric hybrid in the SUV category when it debuted its hybrid Escape.

And so when Toyota announced today that it would begin testing a plug-in gas electric hybrid on public roads in the U.S. and Japan, I could hear the moans coming from GM from my office in Ann Arbor, MI some 40 miles from GM’s headquarters.

GM, of course, was the hit of last January’s Detroit auto show when it debuted the Chevy Volt plug in. It was the first time in recent years that GM appeared to be ahead of Toyota, or even equal, in the arena of alternative and greener vehicles.

Because Toyota’s brand equity and identification is so indelibly linked with quality and greenness, though, I predict that GM’s leadership on plug-in in the public’s mind will be very short lived if it hasn’t evaporated already since Toyota made its announcement today.

I’m not sure GM can do anything about this in the short term. And I’m not criticizing GM’s handling of promoting the Volt. This is the nature of the image beast.

For those of you who don’t know, the break-through of the plug-in will be that a driver can expect to go anywhere from 25 miles to 40 miles on pure battery power before the gas engine kicks in automatically to recharge the battery while you are driving. The battery can also be re-charged overnight by plugging into the garage outlet. This is huge. Why? Because something like 80% of driving in this country is under 15 miles round trip. That means an awful lot of driving in these cars can be done in a zero emissions state, and without burning gas.

Wide-spread adoption of plug-ins could mirror the adoption of clean running diesel cars in Europe, which represent around 45% of new car sales.

I predict that the plug-in revolution will make the current gas-electric hybrid phenomenon look like a weak prelude to a much bigger change in our driving. GM says the earliest it will have plug-ins available to consumers is 2010. If I were GM, I’d be flogging its leadership on this before its too late…unless it already is.

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