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Tina Casey headshot

GM Seeks Competitive Edge in a 100 Percent EV Future

By Tina Casey
chevy bolt GM

General Motors (GM) has had a mixed reputation with electric vehicle fans for almost 25 years, starting with the ill-fated EV-1 in the 1990s. Skepticism over the company’s intentions for zero-emission mobility reached a fever pitch last fall, when GM sided with the Trump administration in an effort to override California’s strict emissions standards. Now that the dust has settled, however, it appears that GM has positioned itself to dominate as the auto industry pivots to battery power.

Electric vehicles and emission standards: There they go again

GM launched the EV-1 all-electric vehicle to much fanfare in 1996, in response to new air quality standards imposed by California.

However, the company manufactured little more than 1,000 of the cars before pulling them off the market in 2001. Among factors dooming the EV-1 was a relatively low range of 100 miles per charge. The emerging popularity of hybrid electric vehicles also thwarted the attempt to sell the public any cars running 100 percent on electricity.

While the EV-1 debacle was unspooling, industry observers also noted that GM was also part of a successful lobbying effort aimed at rolling back California’s new emission standards.

Twenty years later, a similar scenario appears to be playing out. Last fall, GM joined Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Kia, Subaru and Fiat Chrysler along with the Trump administration in legal actions challenging California’s right to set its own fuel efficiency and emissions standards over national standards.

Last week Electrek took a deep dive into the issue and suggested that the move may reflect a strategy for gearing up to compete against Tesla and other all-electric startups, which are free to focus exclusively on electric cars.

The market for all-electric vehicles is still relatively small, so auto makers like GM can still make billions selling petroleum-fueled vehicles. That could potentially provide a firm financial platform for future investments in electric vehicles.

GM sees the electric vehicle light

As Electrek emphasizes, GM does not necessarily support rolling back federal fuel efficiency and emission standards. Its main concern is selling cars into a unified U.S. market, not turning back the clock on air quality.

With that in mind, GM has been sending clear signals that it expects the U.S. auto market to move rapidly in the direction of 100 percent all-electric.

GM introduced the Volt electric hybrid sedan in 2010 only to withdraw it from the market in 2018, having introduced the all-electric Bolt crossover in 2016.

In support of the Bolt and other electric vehicles, GM also began ramping up its battery supply chain several years ago. As the single most expensive component, batteries are the key to lowering the purchase price. GM’s series of battery-related moves included a $28 million investment for a new EV battery research center in Michigan, building on a previous $6 million expansion of the facility.

One giant step occurred last December, when GM announced that it would partner with the company LG Chem to manufacture EV batteries in Ohio. The $2.3 billion joint venture is aimed specifically at making electric vehicles more affordable by slashing the cost of EV batteries.

The company’s most recent announcement came last week, when it announced a new $2.2 billion investment aimed at converting its massive Detroit-Hamtramck plant to produce all-electric trucks and SUVs exclusively.

A slow transition for electric vehicles

Despite the ramped-up activity in the electric vehicle field, GM is still investing in improvements to its internal combustion engines.

In January, for example, the company announced a new $40 million investment aimed producing engines at its Spring Hill manufacturing plant in Tennessee.

Electric vehicle sales only accounted for 2.5 percent of the global market last year, so there is still plenty of room for companies like GM to sell petroleum-fueled vehicles.

Nevertheless, signs of a rapid change in the market are emerging, and the company’s recent investment in battery technology may position it to compete with Tesla and other auto makers on cost.

It also looks like GM’s focus on all-electric over hybrid technology will pay off. Last year, all-electric vehicles dominated the non-ICE (internal combustion engine) market segment at 74 percent of sales globally. Meanwhile, hybrid sales declined significantly from 2018 to 2019.

If the car-buying public is still holding out for the price of electric vehicles to drop, GM is one company that will be ready to welcome them with open arms.

Meanwhile, GM is prepping drivers to make the leap from petroleum to electric mobility. In the latest move, last week the company unveiled a zero emission version of its notorious gas-guzzling Hummer, as if to reassure drivers they can still make a grand impression without harming the planet.

Image credit: Chevrolet, 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