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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Automakers Ready for a Quick Pivot to Electric Vehicles

The new partnership between GM and electric vehicles startup Nikola shows legacy automakers are ready to reshape and retool for an all-electric future.
By Tina Casey
Electric Vehicles

Photo: GM’s eCOPO Camaro Concept, which features an electric motor and GM’s first 800-volt battery pack replacing the gas engine – one of many new developments consumers could see within the electric vehicles market in the coming years.

The trend toward electric vehicles (EVs) has been a slow one, partly because the new technology poses a major challenge to the Big Three U.S. automakers. Unlike Tesla and other new startups, these legacy manufacturers have to reshape and retool existing assets in order pivot to zero-emission mobility. Intuitively, this reality puts them at a disadvantage - or maybe not, based on recent developments.

Fiat figures on cracking the U.S. electric vehicles market

A hint of things to come occurred back in 2009, when Ford, Chrysler and General Motors were buckling under the weight of the 2008 financial crisis. As part of the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Fiat began acquiring shares in Chrysler. Fiat also began integrating its sustainability culture within Chrysler as well.

Somewhat ironically, Chrysler had previously manufactured a few dozen electric minivans back in the 1990’s, but that effort soon fell flat. By the time Fiat began buying up shares, Chrysler had long abandoned the idea of electric vehicles.

That changed after 2014, when Fiat achieved majority shareholder status. As Fiat Chrysler, the company redoubled its focus on sustainability. That includes a renewed push for electric vehicles.

Just last week, Fiat Chrysler introduced a hybrid version of its iconic Jeep Wrangler for the U.S. market, with plans to reintroduce the brand, in addition to more plans for electrification to come.

Ford explores a partnership with Rivian for all-electric pickup trucks

Ford has also reached outside of its own in-house operations to accelerate its electric vehicles profile.

The company had previously focused its electrification strategy on sedans and hybrids. Last year, though, Ford stepped up with a $500 million investment in the startup Rivian.

The initial aim was to leverage Rivian’s “skateboard” platform to make a quick jump into the all-electric pickup and SUV markets.

Unfortunately, the economic downturn touched off by the COVID-19 crisis appears to have thrown up a roadblock. Earlier this year, Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand canceled its plans for a Rivian-based model.

On the upside, Ford has still voiced a strong commitment to 100 percent electric vehicles in the future.

In an official statement dated April 28, Ford explained that its “strategic commitment to Lincoln, Rivian and electrification remains unchanged and Lincoln's future plans will include an all-electric vehicle consistent with its Quiet Flight DNA.”

Adding force to those words, Ford has already established a sprawling network of branded electric vehicle charging stations along with a proprietary payment system. The new all-electric versions of the iconic Ford Mustang and F-150 models should also help boost the company’s EV profile in the future.

Rivian has since entered into a partnership with Amazon to develop a fleet of all-electric delivery vehicles.

GM expands electric vehicles strategy with fuel cell specialist Nikola

GM already has amassed a strong electric vehicles profile through its popular Bolt sedan. However, the company has recognized that an outside assist is needed to beat the competition. To that end, last week the automaker entered into a strategic partnership with the startup Nikola.

Though initially known for its hydrogen fuel cell electric truck, Nikola has also branched into the all-electric, battery-powered vehicle space with the Nikola Badger pickup.

Under the arrangement, GM secures an 11 percent ownership stake in Nikola. The two companies anticipate ramping up both their battery and fuel cell reach through the partnership.

Of particular interest in that regard is GM’s track record of sales to the Department of Defense, along with an ongoing fuel cell partnership with Honda.

In addition, Nikola’s interest in producing green hydrogen dovetails with GM’s holistic focus on electrification.

GM has not confined its efforts to rooftop solar panels. The company recently expanded its renewable power commitments through a clean power program run by the Michigan utility DTE. The utility has already leveraged those commitments to support three new wind farms. GM’s additional participation will provide for more renewable power on the grid, to the benefit of all ratepayers.

Clearly, U.S. auto makers have recognized that the domestic and global auto markets are in a state of flux. They are forming new alliances to gain a foothold in the zero-emission future, helping to ensure that the post-COVID recovery will be a green one.

Image credit: GM

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey