General Motors Still in ‘Show Me’ Mode on EVs

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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General Motors is dubbing it “Factory Zero.” It’s the old Detroit-Hamtramck plant on the city’s east side, itself formerly known as Poletown, which until recently was facing the axe. Now, it’s set to become the heart of GM’s $20 billion product offensive on zero-emissions electric and autonomous cars; hence the internal Factory Zero moniker.

Now comes the real trick: Making sure that “zero” doesn’t describe the profits generated by upcoming EVs like the Cadillac Lyriq crossover SUV, a self-driving Cruise Origin, and an image-scrubbed GMC Hummer. (Coronavirus update: The Lyriq’s planned April 2 unveiling in Los Angeles has been delayed indefinitely). It’s the challenge facing not just GM, but Ford, Volkswagen and every other automaker that has failed — so far — to deliver a top-selling EV to challenge Tesla’s market dominance. Turning EVs from loss leaders into money-minting machines is important for consumers as well: If these companies can’t make money with EVs, they’ll pull the plug, at least until governments and regulators decide we no longer have a choice in the matter. But if people line up for a Hummer that hums on electricity, a Ford Mustang Mach-E, or the Volkswagen ID.4, car companies will start churning out as many as people will buy.

GM unveiled its new electric modular platform and Ultium batteries at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Mich. (Photo: General Motors)

GM’s biggest electric offensive yet

At GM, Ken Morris, vice president of autonomous and electric programs, is leading the team charged with making that happen. The company intends to bring 20 EV models to global markets by 2025, including a big push in China. Those cars are juiced by new Ultium batteries that promise 400 miles or more of driving range and speedier DC fast-charging. A flexible, modular skateboard platform supports them. Those EVs, Morris said, are designed to deliver profits from the get-go.

For those of us with long memories of covering GM, the latest pledge to send EVs up the sales charts may sound like a broken record — or a “Me too” plea for love and attention from Wall Street, besotted as it is with Tesla. GM’s history of bringing new technology to the masses isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. From the star-crossed EV1 and plug-in Chevy Volt, to hydrogen and ethanol “revolutions” that turned out to be pipe dreams, GM has made a habit of raising hopes and trumpeting innovations, but then failing to take advantage and popularize them. (Let’s make an exception for the MagneRide adaptive suspension technology, first offered on Cadillacs and Corvettes, that’s now a staple of highfalutin’ models from Ferrari, Audi and more).

GM was ahead of the curve with the 1997 EV1, the first mass-produced electric car of modern times. (Photo: General Motors)

Waking the sleeping giant

Morris believes things are different this time around. For one, GM intends to apply its full global muscle to its EVs, including plants dedicated solely to EVs and batteries in Michigan and Ohio, respectively.

“It’s difficult to do anything at low volume in the industry,” Morris says. “We’re a big enough company that, when we go all in, that changes the scale.”

Write this latest promise down: GM projects that it can sell 1 million EVs a year around the world by 2025. Using 8 million annual sales as a baseline (roughly what GM sells on average), that would be 12.5 percent of its global output, a massive uptick from today’s levels. To put those cars in the black, GM’s goal is to drive its battery costs to $100 per kilowatt-hour or less, long the Holy Grail of battery development. Analysts figure that GM has lost $7,000 to $9,000 on every Bolt sale, due to the financial drag of pricey lithium-ion batteries.

For GM to sell 1 million EVs a year by 2025, it will need affordable models like the Bolt. (Photo: Chevrolet)

GM intends to stack these pouch-style battery cells into models, at sizes and strengths ranging from 50 kilowatt hours, to 200 KwH in its largest trucks, including a full-size Cadillac SUV. Now, assuming that GM can source batteries at $100 per KwH, that’s roughly $20,000 for its beefiest packs. Morris cautioned the math doesn’t work precisely that way, and that GM can balance some battery expenses via other savings. Morris especially loves this piece of data: GM currently juggles 555 combinations of engines and transmissions in its global portfolio. The new BEV architecture shrinks the number to 19. Still, big batteries cost big bucks. One of GM’s trickiest balancing acts will be to price electric models low enough to lure mainstream buyers, yet high enough to make money. As for the mythical day when EVs reach price parity with gasoline models, Morris says: “We’re not there yet, but we’re trying to get there as quickly as we can.”

Can GM really reinvent itself?

GM’s “EV Day” media blitz at its Tech Center in suburban Detroit brought other encouraging developments. Where the Bolt’s obsolescent, 50-kilowatt DC capability takes 30 minutes to add 100 miles of range, the new EVs will do it up to three times faster; 100 miles for every 10 minutes on the plug, at 150-kW speed. That could bring some consumers off the fence, the kind who aren’t convinced an EV is viable for longer trips. Morris adds that GM bused some 800 workers from its Detroit-Hamtramck plant to its famous Design Dome — created by the late architect Eero Saarinen — to give them a sneak peek of the cars they’ll be screwing together. I’m sure those workers are thrilled that, instead of facing potential pink slips, they’ll be on the leading edge of GM’s (and Detroit’s) plan to reinvent itself with electric cars.

For all the good stuff, including an upcoming electric Chevrolet pickup that GM announced in November, there were also blind spots and warning shots in GM’s announcements: Where was the compact electric SUV to compete against Tesla’s Model Y? The news that GM would only modestly update the Bolt, rather than deliver an all-new model, seems unlikely to reverse its sales slide. Then there’s the Cadillac Celestiq, a $200,000-plus, hand-built flagship luxury sedan. Only a few hundred will be built. GM simply hasn’t earned the cred to build ego-stroking halo cars until it proves it can compete with Tesla at half that price and less. Every penny of that no-win Celestiq project should be poured into electric SUVs or pickups instead, starting yesterday.

The auto industry isn’t always fair: GM was ahead of its time with the EV1. It delivered worthy, smartly engineered cars with the Volt and Bolt. But for all that, GM remains squarely in “show me” mode when it comes to building a successful electric business. For car shoppers, and the men and women who work in Factory Zero, here’s hoping they get it right this time around.

Correction: The original column indicated that GM was not planning an electric Chevrolet pickup. While GM did not reveal that truck in physical form at EV Day, the company plans to bring one to market by 2025.



About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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