Will Volt recharge GM, save U.S. auto industry?

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WARREN, Mich. --- He stands all day, bent over noisy machines, cutting giant sheets of steel and feeding them into monster-size presses so powerful the concrete floor rumbles beneath his size-16 feet.

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Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm tests a pre-production model of the Chevrolet Volt. She says the car "symbolizes the new GM and the new Michigan," which has lost 860,000 jobs in 10 years.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm tests a pre-production model of the Chevrolet Volt. She says the car "symbolizes the new GM and the new Michigan," which has lost 860,000 jobs in 10 years.

This is how Steve Prucnell builds cars. In 22 years, the parts haven't changed much. A car's a car.

Then another project came along, something totally different.

After decades of building hundreds of cars -- everything from Corvettes to Saturns to Silverados -- Prucnell took a giant leap into the future, joining the team that built test models of the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors Co.'s new electric car. It's a high-risk, high-profile venture, and Prucnell is understandably nervous.

Maybe it's the 13 foreclosure signs that popped up on his street. Or turning 50 years old in a struggling industry. Or working for a company that needed a $52 billion loan from the U.S. Treasury to stay alive. Whatever the reason, Prucnell is keeping his fingers crossed, hoping America is ready for a new kind of love affair -- battery included.

The Volt could help usher in a new generation of electric cars, but there's more at stake here than a technological breakthrough: The fate of GM and its workers. The future of a beleaguered state. And, maybe, in some larger sense, the image of all U.S. autoworkers, eager to prove they have what it takes to compete on the global stage.

The moment of truth is coming, and Prucnell feels the pressure.

"If this doesn't fly, what's left for GM?" he asks, his 6-foot-6 frame hunched over while taking a break in the union hall near the GM Tech Center. "Wall Street is going to say, 'We knew they couldn't dig themselves out of the hole.' "

There was, Prucnell says, a different vibe building the Volt. It wasn't just the intense scrutiny from above. It was the anxiety down below, on the shop floor.

"I don't want to say that we worked harder on this," Prucnell says. "I think we worked a lot smarter. I mean everybody was on their 'A' game. It wasn't, 'No, that's good enough.' It was, 'We want to make sure we're perfect.' "

"We know the Volt is the last hurrah for GM," he adds. "It's either do or die."

ROAM THE STATE of Michigan, and you will hear the same insistent optimism:

The Volt is crucial. So much depends on this car. It cannot fail.

This is a state that talks about becoming more than an auto capital, but cars have been its identity, its lifeblood. It's the place where Henry Ford's name graces a college, a hospital and a museum; where Walter Reuther Freeway honors the revered United Auto Workers leader; where Pontiac was an Indian warrior and then a town before gaining fame as a car.

So when the car industry tanks, the crisis is financial, personal and even existential.

"Detroit," declares Mike Smith, the head of the Reuther Library, "has two choices: Remake itself. Or die on the vine."

Notice that Smith uses Detroit not to refer to the city, but as a synonym for the auto industry. It's typical of a world where folks discuss V6 engines and powertrains with the same ease that Hollywood producers talk about movie grosses.

What can a single car -- one touted as revolutionary but still untested by the public -- mean in a state that has hemorrhaged jobs, leaving some cities with Hoover-like jobless rates edging toward 30 percent?

Maybe a lot, according to Smith, a historian who was once a mechanic.

"If you're going to have an electric car and if the Volt turns out to be the leader of the pack, think what that means in sales, prestige, in reputation," he says. "This one is symbolic in the sense that it's going to speak to the prowess of the American auto industry -- and GM itself."

The spotlight will be white-hot.

"The Volt," he says, "is going to be the most watched production in the history of autos."

Teri Quigley, the 22-year GM veteran who manages the sprawling Detroit-Hamtramck plant where the Volt will roll off the line, can already feel the heat.

"We have to execute flawlessly," she says. "A lot of pressure? Yeah. ... We've got one chance to do this right. My work force has heard me say this more than once: 'The world is really going to be watching.' "

GM IS SPENDING $336 million to prepare the factory, so it can build Volts on the same line as the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne.

Quigley knows the risks that come with introducing a first-of-its kind car during a recession that has clobbered the auto industry. Car production in her plant plummeted from 120,500 in 2007 to 35,764 in 2009.

But the Volt, she says, could help restore luster to American cars -- and the city.

"The whole view of what Detroit is like, what the auto industry is like -- we have a unique opportunity to change that tarnished image," she says. "I'd like to change people's minds about what we do here."

Workers at Quigley's plant recently assembled six Volts, adding to 80 or so built by hand at GM's Tech Center. Some early models have been crash-tested or subjected to extremes: the 100-plus-degree desert of Death Valley, the 40-below freeze of Kapuskasing, Ontario, the 14,000-foot climb up Pikes Peak.

Others are being road-tested or plugged in the garages of GM engineers to get the kinks out before the cars hit the showrooms late this year.

Initially, the Volt will be available only in Michigan, California and Washington, D.C. GM won't reveal the price tag, though it's expected to be about $35,000 -- not taking into account a $7,500 tax credit.

What will this buy?

A complex machine of more than 18,000 parts, none probably more important than the 400-pound, T-shape lithium ion battery. It will give the car a range of up to 40 miles on one charge.

After that, a small gas-powered engine will kick in to generate electricity to power the car about 300 miles. The battery can be recharged by plugging it in to an electrical outlet.

The Volt will largely be a Michigan production. GM is pouring $700 million into eight operations that will create the car. The dollars and work -- battery packs in one place, engine generators in another -- will be spread out: Warren. Hamtramck. Bay City. Grand Blanc. Brownstown Township. And Detroit and Flint, two cities that are the walking wounded of the cataclysm that has engulfed Michigan.

The state has lost 860,000 jobs in a decade, the majority since 2007. Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently noted the state has shed 78 percent of its auto manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years, as GM, Chrysler and more than 50 suppliers declared bankruptcy.

The Volt, she says, "symbolizes the new GM and the new Michigan." She predicts it will help the state become an incubator for thousands of jobs in the battery industry.

There have been modest signs of improvement, too, for U.S. automakers in recent months; GM just announced its first quarterly profit in nearly three years.

Even so, the U.S. auto industry will never again generate one in six U.S. jobs, says Smith, the historian. Robots, automation and foreign competition have forever changed that.

And yet ... silver linings can be found in the smallest clouds.

"People in this area are looking for anything to say Michigan and its car industry can make it," he says.

"That's the hope factor that drives a lot of us in Detroit. What if the electric car catches on? What if there are suddenly orders for 100,000 Volts? Now we're talking. GM will be making plenty of cars again and everybody here will be happy."


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