Transportation: GM Goes Green, Gets Green

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The Chevy Volt. Credit: Roy Ritchie for TIME

When executives from General Motors visited the trading floors of JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley—the two firms handling the auto company’s initial public offering—they were given a standing ovation from the bankers. Maybe the rest of us should join in. Less than a year and a half after the company declared bankruptcy and seemed headed for ruin—averted only by an expensive government bailout—GM on November 16 set a record for the largest I.P.O. in U.S. history, and shares kept rising on November 18 once the stock opened for trading. Although GM has a long way to go before it can pay off the government’s $50 billion investment, it seems well on its way.


But there’s more good news for greens. GM—once synonymous with the gas-guzzling SUVs that eventually helped sink its business—has reemerged as a smarter, leaner and more environmentally friendly car company. Chevrolet—one of GM’s main brands—announced today that it will be investing $40 million in clean energy projects throughout America, with a goal to reduce 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. (That’s roughly equivalent to one year of electricity use for nearly a million homes in the U.S., or the carbon footprint of the 1.9 million cars Chevy expects to sell in the U.S. over the next year.) The projects will be varied—from promoting smart sensors and solar panels to contributing to forestry projects around the country—and they’ll be carried out over the next three to five years. The programs were put together with input from outside environmental experts, like the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College.

To be sure—yes, it’s that part of the story—these investments have more to do with public relations than changing the core of the company. While he notes that GM has reduced its manufacturing emissions 60% since 1990—though the company has shrunk considerably since—GM vice president for marketing Joel Ewanick says the company wants to change. “We’ve talked a lot about being a different car company,” he told me yesterday. “We want to evolve from where we’ve been.” Investing in wind farms and planting trees will be part of that.

What really matters, though, will be the kind of cars that GM manufactures. And here they really do seem to have a winner. On the same day that GM shares were once again being sold on the stock market, the Chevy Volt—the company’s long-awaited plug-in electric car—was named 2011 Green Car of the Year, narrowly edging out the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which is also just hitting the streets. (Unlike the Leaf the Volt isn’t a pure electric—it’s runs on an battery-powered electric motor for an average of 40 miles a charge, before switching to a gas engine when the battery is depleted.) And the car is selling well, even with a $41,000 price tag (though tax credits help whittle that number down). General Electric just announced that it will be buying 12,000 Volts to augment its corporate fleet. It’s not clear yet, however, just how quickly electric like the Volt will sell. A recent survey by Pike Research found that consumers were intrigued by electrics, with 44% of respondents interested in a plug-in hybrid like the Volt—but with little willingness yet to pay a big premium over what a conventional car would cost.

Still, things are looking up for GM and the Volt. I’ve followed the development of the car with more than the usual interest, visiting GM’s R&D center in Warren, Michigan in 2008 to see the car in development. Back then I had a chance to drive a prototype—a Chevy Malibu with the guts of what would be the Volt:

I can see the future of the automobile — I just can’t quite hear it. I’m riding around General Motors’ secure proving grounds in Milford, Mich., in what from the outside looks like an ordinary Chevrolet Malibu. But inside it couldn’t be more different. The test car isn’t powered by a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, like nearly every automobile since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1908. Nor is it a hybrid like Toyota’s fuel-efficient Prius with a gas engine assisted by an electric motor. This Malibu is electric, powered by a 400-lb. lithium-ion battery nestled beneath the floorboard — an energy source that is not only silent but entirely emission-free.

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to take the final, product Volt for a quick spin around the streets of midtown Manhattan. OK, that’s not true—there is no such thing as a quick spin around the sclerotic streets of midtown Manhattan. But I did take it out for a crawl. It handled well, silently slipping around honking taxis and gawking tourists. The dashboard was something out of Star Trek: The Next Generation—there’s even a gauge with a green ball that tracks how efficiently you’re driving. (Though I’d suggest you keep your eyes on the road—I nearly rear-ended a delivery truck on my test drive, which would have been problematic, because I don’t have a spare $41,000.) I’m not sure if the Volt really is the car of the future, but at the very least, now it looks like GM has one.