Dinner with a General Motors exec

GM chairman Bob Lutz says the Detroit-based automaker can be greener and still build cars for speed.

Bob LutzPhoto by Ray Wert

Love him or hate him, Bob Lutz is somewhat of a celebrity in the automotive world. From GM to BMW to Ford and back again, Lutz has seen firsthand the growth, as well as the trials and tribulations, of the automotive industry over a span of more than four decades. Oh, and in his early days, he flew fighter planes in the Marine Corps.

When I told some of my colleagues I was invited along with a small group of bloggers to have dinner with "Maximum" Bob, some beamed in envy, others snarled in skepticism. After all, GM has had its share of bad publicity over the years. But Bob and company claim those days are over. General Motors is hoping to please the entire customer spectrum, from eco-minded conservationists to speed-loving gearheads.

On the "green" side of the scale, GM seems to realize what alternative-fuel experts have been saying for a long time: No single fuel can fully replace our dependency on petroleum-based oil. Fuel diversification--using different ways to power the various cars on the road--eases both ecological and economic strain on our resources. During the first half of our meeting, GM carted us over to Universal Studios and outlined some of the technologies they're either testing or currently employing:

Hybrid systems. GM is introducing two types of hybrid powertrains: a two-mode hybrid system that will soon be available on the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon (as discussed in a previous post) and a "mild" hybrid system that will be incorporated into smaller cars like the Chevy Malibu. And yes, it looks like that two-mode hybrid Escalade will make its way onto the market in the next year or so.

Flex fuel. Several vehicles, including trucks and SUVs, have been modified to run on up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). Although not yet widely available to the public, GM uses lots of these cars internally; they're often transport vehicles during promotions and press events. Of course, vehicle availability is only part of the equation, as E85 fueling stations are hard to come by in many areas. California, for example, only has four E85 pump locations in the entire state.

Hydrogen fuel cells. Real-world testing will soon begin on fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes in Los Angeles and New York. It will be the largest market test ever of electric vehicles powered by hydrogen. Cars will be driven by consumers, although no specific details are available yet.

Electric cars. The all-electric Chevy Volt concept was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January of this year. The Volt uses lithium-ion batteries, which are less toxic than nickel-metal hydride. GM folks say they're getting closer to a production car, but, they say, the battery technology still needs to get better before these cars hit dealerships.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lutz admits there's a horsepower race going on between car manufacturers. He says, for example, that a new version of the Corvette will most likely be faster and more powerful than the C6 and Z06 models on the market today. And although such muscle cars might seem the antithesis to gas-saving Saturns, Bob said not to rule out the possibility of any fuel-saving technologies on those vehicles in the future, either, should regulations so require. Electric-powered 500 hp sports car, anyone?