Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner says the automotive industry is entering a period of technological advancements similar to what was last seen a century ago.

With the industry on the cusp of developing new propulsion technologies, such as alternative-fuels, electric plug-in and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, Wagoner calls on OEMs and dealers to cooperate in helping consumers through the transition to advanced technologies.

"We have to work together to develop the technology, bring it to market, educate consumers and sell and service these advanced-propulsion vehicles," Wagoner says during his keynote address at the annual National Automobile Dealers Assn. conference here, noting it’s an "opportunity to change our business for generations to come."

In doing so, auto makers and their dealer networks will have a hand in reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and changing the world for "our children and our children’s children," he says.

To achieve these goals, Wagoner tells attendees here it is critical that auto makers and dealers continue to be active in the legislative process. He singles out dealers for their role in lobbying lawmakers to craft the new corporate average fuel economy legislation mandating 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) for new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. by 2020.

Wagoner says achieving the upcoming CAFE standards is possible, but urges dealers to fight against proposals from individual states seeking to set their own fuel-economy standards.

"A number of states, in their zeal to address these issues as completely as possible, are anxious to go beyond the aggressive targets set by the new federal-energy legislation. And we understand this desire," he says.

"But if we have to focus our efforts on meeting state targets, instead of a single national standard that is already very aggressive and is going to be tough to meet, then we’re not going to be able to accomplish everything we otherwise could," Wagoner says. "We need to work together to educate policy makers on the importance of tough but national standards."

If the industry is to usher in a new technological era, a new fueling infrastructure has to be put in place, he says. Hydrogen refueling stations and electric charging stations will be necessary in the near future. But even now, the lack of E85 pumps is hindering the switch to alternative-fuels vehicles.

"We’re doing a lousy job as a nation in making E85 (biofuel) available to our customers," Wagoner says, noting ethanol stations currently represent less than 1% of the 170,000 gas stations in the U.S.

"Working together, dealers and OEMs really have to push for faster expansion of ethanol-fueling stations to realize the tremendous promise of E85 in reducing our nation’s reliance on imported oil and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions," he says.

Meanwhile, GM is working with dealers to reduce the number of stores in the U.S. through a process Wagoner describes as a mutual decision between individual dealers and their OEMs.

"Our goal is to ensure those dealers that choose to leave the industry do so with dignity," he says. "And that in every market, we work with our dealers on a franchise footprint that improves their throughput and profitability."

GM also is addressing dealer profitability by working to improve margins, says Wagoner, noting the auto maker increased dealer margins in December.

bpope@wardsauto.com