On home turf today at the Detroit Auto Show, General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Bolt, a $30,000 electric vehicle for the masses, targeted to compete with Tesla Motors’ highly anticipated Model 3.
The all-electric Bolt, equipped with a battery from South Korea’s LG Chem, will be capable of driving 200 miles on a single charge. The concept car is designed to meet the needs of a wide range of consumers, with a hatchback to create more space, a 10-inch-diagonal touchscreen, autonomous driving technology and DC fast charging.
“We have made tremendous strides in technologies that make it easier and more affordable for Chevrolet customers to integrate an all-electric vehicle in their daily lives,” said GM CEO Mary Barra. “The Bolt EV concept demonstrates General Motors’ commitment to electrification and the capabilities of our advanced EV technology.”
The production version of GM’s newest electric vehicle (EV) is expected to reach the market in 2017, the same year Tesla is slated to debut the Model 3.
Rumors predict that Tesla will preview its next-generation electric vehicle this week as well, as executives have suggested in the past. CEO Elon Musk has already revealed that the Model 3 will have a 200-mile range and a $35,000 price point, and that it “won’t look like other cars.” Musk is set to give a presentation in Detroit on Tuesday.
The question on many people’s minds is whether GM can really outdo Tesla. The Tesla brand has star power behind it, attracting the likes of George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher. A remarkably intense cult of personality has sprung up around CEO Musk.
“I absolutely believe the GM product will be very competitive with other products in terms of technology,” said Brett Smith, senior analyst at the Center for Automotive Research, in an interview. “But it doesn’t have that all-important Tesla image.”
Established automakers are facing the same challenge with Tesla on electric-vehicle technology as they are with Google on automated vehicle technology, he added. Their work is every bit as groundbreaking as Google’s, maybe more so, but they can’t compete with the Google brand.
Who wants to buy an electric Chevy?
GM is already struggling with its current EV products. The Cadillac ELR hasn’t made a dent in Model S sales, the Chevy Spark EV city car sold fewer than 1,200 units in 2014, and the Chevy Volt -- GM’s nameplate plug-in hybrid launched in 2010 -- saw sales drop 19 percent year over year.
The decline could be attributed, at least in part, to the anticipation of the 2016 Chevy Volt, which officially launched today. The next-generation EV has a sleeker, sportier design and an extended range of 50 electric miles. The previous model has a 35-mile EV range.
Baird Equity Research wrote in an investors' note that it expects Tesla stock to come under pressure facing competition from the Bolt. But it still listed Tesla as “a favorite pick.”
“We believe Tesla will continue to advance its battery technology allowing for extended range options for the Model 3, and vehicle demand should be supported by Tesla's brand and history of making quality EVs,” according to Baird analysts. “Additionally, Tesla's current supercharger network provides first-mover advantage over other technologies.”
The Bolt will be Mary Barra’s stake in the ground, a way of positioning GM as an automaker of the future. Over the past year, the company’s reputation has been marred by a record 30 million unit recall.
Barra, who served as head of GM’s global product development before becoming CEO in January 2014, has said GM will build up to 500,000 vehicles with some form of electrification by 2017. While federal fuel economy mandates are pushing all automakers to make less-polluting cars, Barra has insisted GM isn’t making EVs just “to check a regulatory box.”
Meanwhile, Tesla Motors’ Chief Designer Jerome Guillen recently told Germany’s Manager Magazin Online that the company plans to make up to 500,000 pure EVs by 2020, which is the expected capacity of the Tesla Giga factory.
Can Tesla reach the mass market?
It’s unlikely to be smooth sailing for Tesla, however. Reaching the $35,000 price point while maintaining the product quality Tesla is now known for will be challenging, according to Morgan Stanley automotive analyst Adam Jonas, who believes the company will miss its 2020 sales target by 40 percent.
As it attempts to scale, Tesla is starting to experience the same production issues traditional automakers have long faced. Solving these issues takes time and delays vehicle deliveries, which has already upset some Chinese customers.
Tesla does not release official sales figures, but it’s expected that the company failed to hit its 2014 delivery target of 35,000 vehicles.
“People don’t quite appreciate how hard it is to manufacture something,” said Musk said on a recent earnings call. “It is really hard.”
In order to grow faster, Tesla might have to be less "perfectionist about future products," the CEO said.
Production experience is one area where GM might have an advantage. It’s also a widely recognized brand name, and so it may have an easier time reaching the mass-market consumer who doesn’t care much about Silicon Valley.
With gas at hovering around $2 per gallon in many parts of the country, EV sales on the whole are likely to take a hit. If prices stay low, both Tesla and GM may have trouble selling consumers on the added value of their mass-market EVs.
“It’s still a real challenge to sell electric vehicles to anyone who is not an electric-vehicle advocate,” said Smith.
Tesla’s advantage is that Elon Musk also has his own set of advocates.
“The Tesla image is based very much on [the company's] willingness to [sell EVs], not necessarily its capacity to do it,” Smith said. “They went out when no one else would and made a very high-end, high-performance luxury EV. Other companies could have done the same thing and probably [would not have been] very successful because of the image Elon Musk has.”
The same could prove true in when the Model 3 and the Bolt take to the market.