GM’s Chevy Volt goes flat in business and politics

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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General Motors predicted it would sell 10,000 Chevrolet Volt automobiles by the end of the year, but it is only on track to sell roughly 7,000 of these plug-in hybrids before 2012.

“We’ll probably hit that [10,000 target] early in 2012 … [but] we’re not going to get into specifics,” said Chevy spokesman Rob Peterson.

President Barack Obama’s support for the Volt is intended to be a vote-winning strategy in states where the auto industry is a large employer. The president, however, has sold his policies to only 41 percent of likely voters in Michigan, according to a November poll sponsored by the Detroit Free Press.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a possible GOP nominee to challenge Obama, has the support of 46 percent of likely Michigan voters. The state has 16 votes in the Electoral College.

Obama, however, outpolled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 45 to 40 percent. The poll of 600 likely voters was conducted in mid-November by EPIC-MRA.

The president may also believe his support for the Volt and the auto industry will translate into blue-collar-worker votes.

But in November, only one-third of white blue-collar Democrats, and only 68 percent of non-white blue-collar Democrats, approved of his job performance, according to a CNN poll conducted by ORC International. The poll surveyed 504 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

In numerous speeches and events, Obama and his deputies have touted the Volt as a pleasingly green symbol of government support for high-tech manufacturing. In early 2009, supporters were predicting 15,000 Volts could be built in 2011, and another 120,000 in 2012. (RELATED: More on the Chevy Volt)

Customers who buy the $41,000 gas–electric hybrid compact car get a federal tax rebate of $7,500.

The debate over the Volt has been shaped by politics, as well as by its performance, Peterson said.

“Many people want to say the Volt is a product of the Obama administration, although its origins go back to February 2006, before the Obama administration had even begun campaigning for the presidency,” he explained.

Peterson said the vast majority of Volt sales are going to ordinary customers, not government buyers or large corporations. A careful analysis of available Volt sales figures, however, reveals just how important sales of the electric vehicle to city and state governments and utility companies have been.

On Dec. 7, for example, New York City announced it had bought 50 Volts, 20 of which are being given to the city’s police department. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, touted the purchase as a civics lesson, not as an efficient transport mechanism.

“When provided with the facts, people become far more likely to choose an electric vehicle,” Bloomberg told reporters at a press conference held to showcase the Volt purchases.

“Our job is to ensure the public has the facts, ensure they can make their own decisions and ensure that if they want to drive an electric vehicle, we are providing the [refueling] infrastructure. … It’s all part of our PlaNYC agenda to create a greener, greater New York City,” he declared.

The scale of government purchases is unknown, partly because there are so many jurisdictions that may not be announcing the purchase of Volts.

But some do showcase the latest additions to their fleets.

In November, the city of DeLand, Fla. announced it was using part of a $1.2 million federal grant to buy five of the autos. A city commissioner touted the purchase in much the same language used by New York’s mayor.

“We feel like DeLand is on the cutting edge of energy conservation … and this helps keep us there,” said commissioner Leigh Matusick, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

These taxpayer Volt acquisitions have been underway all year. In May, for example, the federal General Services Administration announced it would acquire 116 of the cars.

Government money flows to Chevy’s production line through other routes too.

A total of 64 Volts were purchased by a coalition of 28 utility companies, including PPL Corp., in Allentown, Pa., according to the Morning Call newspaper. The purchase is funded with $30 million from Obama’s first stimulus spending law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Some private sector companies have touted their procurement of Volts. The principal buyer is General Electronic, which has announced plans to purchase roughly 3,000 Volts per year from 2011 through 2015.

In 2010, five percent of General Motors’ $150 billion in revenue was earned from the U.S. government.

But some of the Volt’s corporate users are publicity-shy.

For example, telecommunications giant Verizon, which does plenty of business with government buyers and government regulators, bought some of the autos, but declined to to tell The Daily Caller how many it acquired.

These government and special corporate purchases of Chevy Volts, often made for reasons other than the direct economic benefit of driving the cars, comprise a large segment of GM’s sales of the vehicle, weakening the company’s claim that it is selling most of its autos to ordinary consumers, said Mark Modica, an associate at the advocacy group the National Legal and Policy Center.

“Considering that only about 5,000 of these things have sold, even if only … 1,000 have gone to townships and General Electric, you’re talking 20 percent” of sales, he said.

Peterson denied Modica’s arguments.

“A majority of the vehicles are going to retail customers,” he said.

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