Commentary

I have attended too many presentations by General Motors on new fuel-saving engines.

I remember GM’s Research Lab showing off a Pontiac Grand Prix equipped with a steam engine in the ‘60s. That’s the 1960s, not the 1860s.

Then there was the EV-1 electric car, introduced in 1996, killed off in 2003.

My favorite from GM was its work to develop a new Stirling engine, something invented by a 19th Century English clergyman.

More recently, there have been presentations on fuel cells that use hydrogen to create electric current to power a vehicle.

Just last month, GM showed off the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) you can charge from a regular 110-volt outlet in your garage.

I’m getting tired of GM’s presentations. I keep thinking of a line in an old movie, “Born Yesterday,” when the heroine eyes a handsome reporter and says, “Are you looking for a little action or are you all talk?”

A friend argues with me about this. He says, “All you guys complain GM isn’t doing anything, and when it does something you complain more.”

He has a point. But so do I.

GM presentations have been too much talk. Even when it followed through and built a production vehicle, such as the EV-1, it was strange and impractical.

Now we have GM talking about something new, the PHEV.

The Volt concept corrects some of the mistakes of the EV-1 by including a few crucial items: a back seat, something besides conventional lead-acid batteries to power it and a gasoline engine to recharge the batteries while driving.

But in order for the Volt to work, it needs cost-effective and super-durable lithium-ion batteries that GM admits have not yet been invented.

If any auto maker knows about batteries, it’s Toyota. With soaring nickel prices pushing up the cost of the nickel-metal hydride batteries it uses in its HEVs, Toyota would love to switch to Li-ion.

If Toyota tells me such batteries aren’t anywhere close to reality yet, and it does, I figure that’s it. Plus, we’ve all heard about the massive recall of Li-ion laptop computer batteries because some have caught fire.

Can you blame me for being skeptical?

Another troubling aspect is this is yet another big development project for an auto maker in financial trouble.

GM already is on its second billion worth of investment in fuel-cell technology, plus it is working on several varieties of HEVs, flexible fuels, some expensive new clean-diesel engines and now PHEVs.

Isn’t that a bit much for a company running out of money?

I used to say GM had adopted the Scarlet O’Hara fuel economy policy, which was: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Now, I think they have changed, and the new policy is: “They’ll be pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.”

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.