There’s a great 1970 song by Peggy Seeger called “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer,” about the operator of a turret lathe whose husband calls her in from her "Rose the Riveter" stint on the factory floor to take care of the kids. And she's bitter about it. (There's an excerpt here.)

Well, maybe times have changed. Did you notice that the Chevrolet Volt is being designed and built by women? Yes, in a business as traditionally sexist as automobile manufacturing, females are calling the shots for this much-anticipated “range extender” car that in some ways is carrying the future of General Motors along with it.

Let’s see now, Britta Gross, who directs “infrastructure commercialization” for GM, is in charge of making sure there will be home and work charging for the Volt (which uses its gas engine as a generator to produce electricity). Pamela Fletcher is the chief engineer for the Volt and the company’s separate plug-in hybrid (more on that one anon). I talked to those two today, and on Friday will also talk to Cristi Landi, the marketing manager for the Volt, and Teri Quigley -- who manages the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant where the Volt (estimated at $40,000) will be built.

“Women pursue their passions a lot,” Gross (pictured right) told me. “They’re migrating to both the advanced technology and the clean technology sectors.” Gross herself started out in aerospace 25 years ago, and she says there were a lot of women making planes even then. It took longer in the male “car guy” fiefdom of auto manufacturing.

Fletcher, who has a master’s degree in combustion engineering, says, “It’s all about having the right experience and being there at the right time.” She said she has never felt constrained by her sex at GM. “I’ve always loved cars, and it’s the ultimate consumer market. I’m excited about pursuing a career in the automotive business.”


Fletcher said she has “quite a few young ladies” reporting to her. “They have real environmental concerns,” she said. One way women knock on the door is through college-based projects like EcoCar, a GM-sponsored contest (with funding from the Department of Energy) to build the greenest car. On a visit to Arizona to watch the young EcoCar engineers at their frantic work, I noticed that about 10 percent were women.

In addition to the Volt, Fletcher (pictured left) has charge of the plug-in hybrid program that was orphaned when Saturn died. She says that project has been revived. “There are development vehicles running, we’re doing cold and hot weather testing, and we’re moving ahead with it aggressively,” she said, declining to say which brand name it will carry. GM doesn’t have all that many left --Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC. It’s not going to be a Cadillac, and they already rejected one Buick platform. But if it were a Chevy, would people get confused? My guess? GMC.

GM will produce 10,000 Volts in 2011, and 30,000 in 2012. There will be seven initial launch markets, but soon after the car goes national. “That’s the part of the story nobody picks up on,” Gross said. “The Volt will be national in just 12 to 18 months.” OK, consider it picked up on, Britta. The Volt is coming soon to a dealer near you.

Gross predicted that 40 percent of Volt charging will be on 110-volt house current, which seems like a lot to me. I’ve been assuming that most people will spend for the 220-volt chargers that can have you up and running in two to three hours, versus eight to 10 hours for house current. But Fletcher pointed out that a lot of people will be plugging in during stopovers at “grandma’s house,” and she’s not going to have 220. Maybe it helps to be a woman to think of things like that.

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