Can this CEO paint GM green?

His company still is identified as the home of big, gas guzzlers, but CEO Rick Wagoner is pushing technology alternatives to fossil-fuels.

Rick Wagoner isn't likely to win applause from a Greenpeace audience--at least any time soon.

As the head of General Motors, Wagoner runs one of the biggest auto companies in the world. But more to the point, he directs the company most identified with big, gas-guzzling SUVs. GM also tends to come out with energy-efficient ideas, such as hydrogen cars or electric vehicles, that never seem to make it.

However, Wagoner says the Detroit giant is serious about fuel efficiency.

So far, GM has sold millions of flex-fuel cars that can run on E85 ethanol and is working with big box retailers to expand the supply of ethanol stations. GM also has invested in Coskata , an ethanol company whose technology promises to deliver ethanol from nonfood sources. At the same time, GM says it's on track to deliver the , an electric car that runs primarily on batteries, by 2010.

Wagoner met with CNET News.com (and some other media outlets) at CES 2008 last week--and just ahead of this week's big Detroit auto show--to discuss these issues and some of the other concepts being touted inside GM.

Q: Can you talk about reported delays or glitches with the Volt?
Wagoner: No glitches. I think the biggest thing that's getting attention is whether we can stay on schedule with battery development. We still have plenty to do but we see that the chemistry can give you the 40-mile range (on a charge) and things of that sort have been favorable.

I've gotten hundreds of communications from customers who have bought their flex-fuel vehicles from us and they're frustrated that they don't have an ethanol station near their house.

Again, it takes about four years to get a concept car to market. You'll say, "Why can't you do it in two years?" and that's vehicle development. In this case we're basically doing kind of three things simultaneously: the vehicle side, which I have a high degree of confidence we can do; the battery side, which is progressing very well, but this is--we're basically pushing the technology needle to do everything that we want out of a battery technology. I would categorize that as emerging as opposed to highly developed; then just the electronic interface of all that is different, it's doable but it's different. We learned a lot back when we did the EV1, but there's a whole lot more electronics on a vehicle today than it was then. Going for 2010 was a stretch. It's still a stretch, but we're putting resources like crazy on it and we haven't seen anything to date which says that we've hit a glitch on it.

Why were you talking about moving away from petroleum-based power trains and petroleum-based infrastructure to electricity? Where is the electricity going to come from and is GM planning to get involved in the sustainability of electricity production?
Wagoner: We're just trying to get the vehicles that don't use so much oil right now. Our focus is this idea of diversity. I don't think it's going to be any time soon that we're not going to use oil. But in view of the world's growing demand for energy in the automotive sector, can we come up with alternatives that are effective in convenience, cost, safety, etc.? And the answer is yes: we're working on all those.

We've been pretty proactive in recognizing developing opportunities of biofuels, but we do not see our function as a company to be an energy provider. We're a transportation provider and we need to work within this constraint--this world that we're in, which is more expensive petroleum and greater sensitivities around emissions and ever greater demand for the product. We need to solve that equation.

Are you likely to distribute the biofuel in the future?
Wagoner: Well, we've been doing more than I thought we would need to. This is really an interesting issue. We have something that is a legitimate substitute for petroleum in the near term. If you look at really moving the needle over in say, the next 10 years, and having a chance to reduce the reliance on petroleum, it's the best thing in that time frame.

I've gotten hundreds of communications from customers who have bought their flex-fuel vehicles from us and they're frustrated that they don't have an ethanol station near their house. We continue to do what we can. We work with a number of so-called, big box retailers to encourage them. I guess the number of stations when we really started focusing on this was maybe 500 or 600 and I think we're up to maybe 1,400 now across the U.S. But that's out of a total of 170,000 (filling stations). We don't need 170,000 to solve the problem. We probably need 15,000 or 20,000, but it's been slow, painfully slow.

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About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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