General Motors is going all in on electric vehicles. Eventually.
The American automaker announced yesterday that it's transitioning to a "zero emissions future," starting with the launch of two new all-electric vehicles in the next 18 months. These vehicles, based off of lessons learned from the Chevrolet Bolt EV, will be the first of at least 20 new all-electric vehicles GM will launch by 2023.
In this case, "all-electric" refers to more than plug-in cars. Due to customers' various needs, hitting new targets will require a two-pronged approach to electrification that includes both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, according to GM.
GM has been developing fuel-cell technology in partnership with Honda for nearly four years, but has yet to launch a production vehicle. Automakers have long touted the long range and fast-fueling benefits of hydrogen over battery power. But although Honda, Toyota and Hyundai each offer a fuel-cell vehicle in California, those sales numbers barely register. Plus, hydrogen infrastructure has proven to be very expensive and time-consuming to build.
GM plans to begin producing fuel-cell vehicles in 2020 at its Brownstown Battery Assembly plant south of Detroit, Autoweek reports. New plug-in vehicle models will feature an "all-new battery system" that GM featured briefly on Monday at its Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. The presentation came a day before Ford's new CEO Jim Hackett was scheduled to deliver a strategic update.
For GM, the shift to all-electric vehicles is part of broader vision of a world with "zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion" -- a vision CEO Mary Barra outlined earlier this month in Shanghai.
That vision seems to be aimed specifically at the Chinese market, where policymakers are considering a ban on combustion engine vehicles. GM will roll out at least 10 "new energy vehicles" in China by 2020, Barra said. And by 2025, nearly all models from GM’s global brands in China -- Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet -- will offer electrification technology. To accommodate that growth, the SAIC-GM joint venture will open a new battery assembly plant in Shanghai this year.
In yesterday's announcement, GM did not explicitly say if or when it plans to cease production of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. Nonetheless, the leading global automaker's enhanced commitment to vehicle electrification is significant, given GM's size and reach.
Last year, GM sold 10 million vehicles of all vehicle sizes and fuel types worldwide. Converting just a fraction of those sales to electric cars would grow the EV market exponentially. All automakers collectively sold just under 550,000 EVs worldwide in 2016, according to Inside EVs.
GM already sells several electric cars, including the plug-in hybrid Volt and all-electric Bolt. In the U.S., sales of the Bolt, which boasts a 230-mile range, have been growing steadily as availability has increased. But despite being an early innovator in vehicle electrification, GM was cautious this week in describing how it would transition to a fully electric fleet.
“General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” said Mark Reuss, executive vice president of GM's product development, purchasing and supply chain, in a statement. “Although that future won't happen overnight, GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles through no-compromise solutions that meet our customers' needs.”
Several other automakers have announced they're going big on electric vehicles, perhaps most notably Volvo. When the company said every Volvo launched from 2019 would have an electric motor, it was reported as though the automaker was swearing off of fossil fuels. But the reality is a little more nuanced.
Volvo specifically committed to launching five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, along with 48 gas and diesel plug-in hybrid and mild hybrid models. So while this represents one of the broadest electrified car offerings of any carmaker, conventional fossil-fuel engines will still be part of Volvo's product strategy for many years to come.
Policies will remain one of the primary drivers of electrification. China, India, France and the United Kingdom are all are considering plans to limit or ban gas- and diesel-powered vehicles between 2030 and 2040. California is also on that list, although the U.S. is lagging on sustainable transportation policy at the national level.
The Trump administration is currently conducting a midterm review of Obama-era fuel economy standards and is expected to try to weaken them. But even if regulations loosen at home, GM -- which now sells more cars in China than the U.S. -- can't escape the policy forces pushing the company toward EVs.
“China is their biggest market,” said Michelle Krebs, analyst at Autotrader, told the Los Angeles Times. “If China decides to go electric, they have to do it.”