In recent months, Chevy's Volt electric vehicle has been at a nexus of politics, PR, technology, fact and fancy -- at least when one applies terms like "battery," "Volt," and "fire" to the search engine of the collective consciousness.
The "one-minute-Hamlet" version of the story is that last May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and General Motors tested the Volt in the vales of Wisconsin, wherein the car was subjected to a 20-mph side impact crash test, a rollover and banishment to the "bone yard," a field in which the car was exposed to the elements. After three weeks in the field, there was a fire. GM and NHTSA tried to replicate the test with no success. Then, NHTSA created another "thermal event" in a lab with the battery pack alone.
Complicating matters from a PR perspective were fires at houses in Connecticut and North Carolina in the spring and fall, respectively, in which Volts were parked in the garages. In both cases, the cars and chargers were exonerated by the fire marshall and local utilities.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), meanwhile, has no plans to strip the Volt of the five-star safety rating and "top safety pick" it bestowed on the car. Ironically, the IIHS said the extra mass of the battery pack actually makes the car safer.
GM has offered to give any Volt owners other vehicles until dealers have the wherewithal to do a patch -- if one is needed -- while reports say General Motors CEO Dan Akerson last week offered to buy back any of the more than 7,000 Volts on the road if owners want out. "If we find that is the solution, we will retrofit every one of them," Akerson said. "We'll make it right."
The company then issued a more nuanced statement, saying it "has established a Volt owner satisfaction program offering any Volt owner concerned about safety to contact his or her Volt advisor to exchange the Volt for a free GM vehicle loan until resolution of the issue."
But the issue is so far moot: The car is popular with owners, none of whom are interested in ditching their Volts; and only 30 have taken a loaner, according to Rob Peterson, manager of Chevrolet Volt and electric-vehicle technology communications for General Motors, who has been involved with the project since 2007.
Peterson tells Marketing Daily that the issue became a PR problem because "you have this flow of information all related to one theme: fire. Since the news cycle has been extending out to the point where [people] can't discern between what was a fact and what was misinformation, we decided to get out in front of it." As for the offer to buy back the cars, "in the interview with the AP, our CEO was making a comment that we are going to do what’s right in a very broad statement, and he said if that means reengineering the battery we will, and if it means the customer wants to sell back their Volt, we will do that. Our challenge is trying to get control of that message again."
George Cook, a former executive for Ford Motor and marketing professor at Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester, tells Marketing Daily that GM, by and large, has done a good job, drawing the obvious comparison with Toyota and its PR nightmare around unintended acceleration.
“My assumption is that GM did crisis management planning about this new technology because it's new, and if you don't plan on 'what if' or ‘just in case,' you are in sad shape. I think GM and probably all car companies learned from Toyota’s experience. GM worked with media and took accountability, saying essentially 'we are in charge; we get the problem and, above all, protect the consumer and satisfaction of our customers.' I would give them good grade on it."
He argues that even though Toyota's sticking-accelerator conundrum was "largely disproved and, in more than one case, was driver error, they should have grabbed the reins much more quickly than they did, because they got crucified by the press."
Cook says he's not surprised Volt owners aren't jumping at the chance for a switch out. "These early adopters are diehards and will protect the company and their decision to buy in early. You won't see lots of them take advantage of the buy-back." He says the real concern for GM would be people ready to make a jump to an electric vehicle. "For people who are edgy about taking that step, and Volt was on their list, this may back them up."
John Voelcker, senior editor at High Gear Media's Green Car Reports, says that since we are at the very beginning of a transition into plug-in cars, and cars like Volt are being snapped up by "people who can afford to have latest coolest, most advanced thing," the real leverage the car gives GM is its influence.
"The Volt is a halo for GM: what happens is that people come in to look at the Volt and salespeople say, 'It's cool and its 40 grand, but we have this Eco Cruze that gets 42 mpg highway!' That's the rule of the halo vehicle," he says.
But Voelcker points out that the combined set of PR issues, regardless of their validity -- the garage fires, then sales figures, then, lastly, the issues around the battery-pack fires -- have provided fuel for a set of people in the political realm who don't like the idea of the Volt.
"They don't like the fact that the government, in a couple of ways, is promoting electric vehicles, that there's a tax credit for buying one, and various loan and grant programs for companies that make the cars and equipment that goes into that," he says. "These are people who don't like the idea that GM got bailed out, don't like the fact that the government is promoting and subsidizing this technology, and don't like the Obama Administration." That essentially makes the Volt sort of an anti-halo vehicle for people with a vested interest in seeing it fail.
"Just Google Rush Limbaugh and Volt," says Voelcker. "The general point is that there is a set of politicians out there, politicians and media folk who are not fond of the Volt and overhype the fire news. To me, this is nothing more than noise level. Most people won't buy one, and the Volt has a level of enthusiasm among owners equal to Corvette, or Camaro … any of those kinds of cars." (Consumer Report's recently-issued owner satisfaction study said the car is also more popular among owners than Porsche's 911: 93% of owners surveyed said they would buy the Volt again, compared with 91% of 911 and Dodge Challenger buyers.)
Indeed, a group of Volt owners, including former Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, have just released a joint letter about why they are keeping their Volts. "In light of the recent news stories regarding the Chevy Volt, we, as Volt owners, would like to set the record straight. We are keeping the keys to our Volts. We love our Volts and we feel safe driving our Volts," the signatories write. "We have done our homework and we know that there is no other car that offers all the advantages of a Volt."