Here’s the conundrum that GM seeks to solve with the newly unveiled Chevy Bolt EUV. U.S. drivers have largely failed to warm up to the electric vehicle (EV) revolution so far, and part of the problem lies in both affordability and diversity.
Electric vehicles cost more up front than comparable cars, a situation that favors affluent car buyers over a broader, more diverse swath of the driving public. Exacerbating the problem is the growing consumer preference for SUVs over sedans, which incentivizes auto makers to focus on luxury models. As the nation races to decarbonize its transportation sector, there is potential for EVs such as the Bolt EUV to lead the way.
EVs first began trickling into the mainstream market about 10 years ago, and auto industry observers quickly spotted a demographic trend that continues to persist: EV owners tend to be older, more affluent and white.
In the U.S., one influential factor is Tesla’s position as an electric vehicle frontrunner, with the bulk of its sales in California, where incomes are generally higher. Tesla launched on a business model that involved promoting luxury electric vehicles as a precursor to manufacturing more affordable cars, and as of last year the company’s hold on the all-electric vehicle market in the U.S. stood at an impressive 80 percent.
That may change as other car makers get up to speed, but in the meantime the demographics of Tesla ownership bring up some concerning issues in terms of diversity and inclusion.
Though the age factor depends on which Tesla model is analyzed, Cox Automotive took a close look at the numbers in 2019 and came up with this observation:
“…the average Tesla buyer represents a small, narrow demographic in our society: rich, young males working in tech-related industries.”
Home ownership is another key variable, because it affects the availability of convenient EV charging opportunities.
In 2019, Hedges & Company noted that the California factor skews Tesla statistics for home ownership somewhat, because more Tesla owners in California tend to be renters due to higher housing costs. Overall, however, the connection between higher incomes and electric vehicle ownership correlate to home ownership, an issue that is rife with racially charged issues in the U.S.
Just over a year ago, The American Prospect followed up on the home ownership issue and drew a comparison between the transition to electric vehicles with other far-reaching forms of racial and economic exclusion such as redlining.
“This transition already risks leaving low- and moderate-income people behind at a time when the country should be accelerating this shift to meet the ambitious net-zero emissions goals needed to save a habitable planet,” Gabrielle Gurley wrote.
In addition to addressing historical issues of race and affordability, automakers that seek to tap into the SUV end of the electric vehicle market also need to consider sustainability issues.
All else being equal, more resources of all kinds get poured into manufacturing, driving, and maintaining an SUV, regardless of whether it runs on fossil fuels or electricity.
Because battery range is affected by a vehicle’s size and weight, the shift in consumer taste to SUVs also throws another element of stress into the formidable challenge of upgrading the nation’s electricity infrastructure to enable rapid, reliable battery charging for millions of electric vehicles.
The growing preference for SUVs is especially challenging for electric vehicle manufacturers that seek to attract low- and middle-income car buyers. Electric vehicles cost more up front than comparable gas-powered cars, mainly due to the cost of the battery. In order to attract new EV buyers, auto makers like Tesla have been concentrating their efforts on the luxury end of the market, where consumers are willing to pay more up front when they see enough bells and whistles added on.
That’s why GM’s decision to produce a more affordable, smaller-sized SUV is significant from a sustainability perspective as well as an inclusion and access perspective. At just 6 inches longer than GM’s Bolt sedan, the new Bolt EUV mitigates some of the sustainability problems raised by populating the streets with larger vehicles.
To be clear, GM is not placing all its money on smaller, more affordable SUVs. The company kicked off 2021 with a splashy Super Bowl ad featuring two much larger - and much more expensive - electric vehicles, the Cadillac LYRIQ SUV and GMC HUMMER super truck.
Nevertheless, the new Bolt EUV demonstrates that the company is serious about pursuing the affordable end of the SUV market, with a close focus on driving EV battery costs down.
To that end, GM has been careful to design a smaller SUV that leverages the name recognition of the popular Bolt EV sedan while providing drivers with a clearly identifiable SUV experience.
“The new Bolt EUV is the best of the Bolt EV packaged in an SUV-like vehicle with more technology and features, giving customers more choices and reasons to switch to electric,” explained Chevrolet VP Steve Hill. “This is an opportunity for Chevy to capitalize on the success we’ve built with the Bolt EV and bring new customers into the Chevy family.”
As for inclusion, one key reference is a white paper published in 2018 by the American Association of Black Engineers titled, “Charging ahead with Vehicle Electrification.” The paper details a complicated network of technology, grid reliability, diversity and affordability issues in relation to EV charging access.
In addition, the AABE white paper affirms the key role that clean power will play in environmental justice as demands on the electricity grid increase.
GM appears to have assimilated those points with the Bolt EUV, partly by including a charging cord with the standard package that covers both Level 1 and basic Level 2 charging.
Level 1 charging takes much longer, but it simply involves plugging the vehicle into any three-prong household outlet. That makes it accessible to practically anyone who owns or rents a home, but it leaves out many others who live in multi-family buildings. Such charging also excludes those who have no driveway adjacent to their home. The Level 2 option is an inclusive feature that enables Bolt EUV buyers to plug in at any public charging station.
Level 2 stations provide a faster charge, and to further incentivize electric vehicle ownership among home owners, GM is also offering to cover the cost of installing a Level 2 charging station at home, in collaboration with the firm Qmerit.
GM’s focus on electric vehicle sales to ride-hailing drivers also dovetails with the AABE white paper. Last fall GM began offering Uber drivers a discount on Bolt EVs and charging accessories, and it recently partnered with RMI to explore the potential for transportation network companies to incentivize the expansion of public charging stations into more neighborhoods.
GM has also embarked on a series of renewable energy ventures as a founding member of the influential Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, helping to ensure that the electric vehicle market can continue to accelerate without imposing new burdens on underserved communities related to power generation.
If the new Bolt EUV proves to be the Model T of the 21st century, much of the credit will be due to the long evolution of diversity at GM.
GM CEO and Chairman Mary T. Barra first started with the company as a co-op student in 1980 through the General Motors Institute (Kettering University) at the company’s Pontiac Motor Division.
GM’s EVP of Global Manufacturing, Gerald Johnson, also started with GM as a Kettering co-op student at age 18. He is now the recipient of the 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Award for his leadership during the pandemic and for his commitment to mentoring, diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Gerald’s passion for the business, strong leadership skills, and extensive manufacturing and labor experience will help in our efforts to continue to transform the company, supporting both the core business and future of mobility,” Barra said in her official remarks for the award ceremony.
Look for diversity and inclusion to feature prominently as GM grapples for the pole position in the mass electric vehicle market over the coming years.
Image credits: Chevrolet
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.