When General Motors launched the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid in 2010, it was heralded as a breakthrough "car of the future." Turns out it came with an expiry date.
Come March, GM will no longer produce the Volt, as part of the automaker's restructuring plan announced last month. GM said it will focus on growing its truck and SUV business, while prioritizing future investments in next-generation of battery-electric vehicle architectures.
The Volt isn't part of that plan, news that EV fans took hard.
A primary selling point for the Volt was that owners could go (mostly) electric without having to compromise on range. The Volt’s roughly 50-mile electric range covers most daily commutes in America. For longer journeys, the car seamlessly switches over to using its small gasoline engine to power an on-board generator, for a total hybrid range of more than 400 miles.
But GM's customer data shows that Volt owners simply aren’t turning on their gasoline engines all that much anymore.
“What we're finding is that consumers are…carrying around this engine and driving on full electricity,” said Shad Balch, Chevrolet spokesperson, in a recent interview at the L.A. Auto Show.
Drivers are also getting over range anxiety, he said. When GM launched the first-generation Volt, there was virtually no public charging infrastructure. Now there are upward of 23,000 public charging stations in the U.S. and Canada.
“The need to carry around a backup generator under the hood is just going away,” Balch said. “We’re seeing that as...our customers are leaving the Volt to get into the Bolt EV.”
That trend is apparent across the EV market. In California, the nation’s largest EV market by far, pure electric-vehicle sales surpassed plug-in hybrids in 2015 and have since expanded their share of the market.
The Volt is retiring with the title of the bestselling electric car in America. GM's cumulative Volt sales are still greater than Tesla's, as of today. But now that the market is primed and GM has successfully commercialized long-range EV technology (the Bolt boasts a 238-mile electric range), it’s time to commit to a bigger transition both from a production standpoint and a vehicle standpoint, said Balch.
The Volt has also been a money-loser for GM. The additional equipment needed to make a plug-in hybrid is expensive, while GM committed to making the Volt price-competitive at around $35,000.
GM CEO Mary Barra has stated repeatedly that her company is committed to an “all-electric future.” In a speech earlier this year, Barra said that commitment “is unwavering, regardless of any modifications to future fuel economy standards,” referring to an ongoing policy battle over vehicle emissions rules in the U.S.
Last year, GM announced that the Chevy Bolt is just the first of at least 20 new all-electric vehicles (which includes fuel-cell electric vehicles) that the company will launch by 2023.
GM isn’t the only automaker taking this approach. Nissan, for instance, is (finally) doubling down on its battery electric vehicle lineup.
The Japanese automaker spearheaded the modern battery electric vehicle market in 2010 with the launch of the all-electric Leaf. Last year, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance held the record for most EVs sold anywhere in the world and may hang on to that title in 2018 as competitors continue to scale up production. The Alliance is currently leading the EV market in Europe, by a healthy margin.
Going forward, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi plans to develop eight new pure-electric vehicles by 2022. At the same time, Nissan is revamping its flagship Leaf.
Current Leaf vehicles come with a 40-kilowatt-hour battery and roughly 150-mile range, which is quickly becoming one of the shortest all-electric car ranges out there. The 2019 Leaf E-Plus is expected to have a 60-kilowatt-hour battery, which would bring the electric range above 220 miles.
Those details have yet to be released. The Leaf E-Plus was scheduled to launch in November, but Nissan chose to delay in light of Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi chairman Carlos Ghosn’s arrest for financial crimes.
Kia Motors is also responding to growing consumer demand for all-electric vehicles. The Korean automaker unveiled two battery electric SUVs at the L.A. Auto Show last month with over 200 miles of range: the Niro and the Soul. Stephen Kosowski, manager of long-range strategy and planning at Kia, said that once a car surpasses 200 miles of range, customers talk a lot less about range anxiety.
“Consumers are starting to ask us: ‘Why you would you have a plug-in hybrid? Why bother? We like driving past the gas station,’” he said at an L.A. Auto Show side event.
It’s notable that Kia introduced two electric SUVs. If battery electric vehicle sales are on the rise, gasoline-powered SUV sales are skyrocketing — in the U.S. and, increasingly, abroad.
GM responded to this trend by announcing that it plans to shift away from sedans (ending production of six sedans in total, including the Volt) and shifting resources to its larger-format vehicles. It’s a strategy that seems inconsistent, at least on the face of it.
GM has yet to come out with an electric SUV, which means the company will be investing in passenger vehicles on opposite ends of the environmental spectrum: gas guzzlers and zero-emissions vehicles. But the American automaker argues that there’s a reason for this.
“The overall trend right now of consumers is they're moving from sedans and cars into crossovers and trucks. That is the trend from a business perspective that is driving all of these forward-looking moves that we're making right now,” said Balch. “The money that we will be able to save because of these transitions is going to be invested in autonomous and electric-vehicle propulsion. So, it's like we're using the core business right now to fund the future technology for vehicles of the future.”
GM’s core business — its gas-powered trucks, crossovers and SUVs — dominated the automaker’s display at the L.A. Auto Show this year, with the Bolt EV tucked in the very back.
The Bolt is not immediately visible at the end of the display.
“It's very hard to connect the dots because they are such different vehicles,” Balch acknowledged, referring to today’s SUVs and battery electrics. But that’s changing.
Crossovers and SUVs are becoming increasingly efficient thanks to advancements in using lighter materials, which will be applied to future vehicles, including electric ones, said Balch. Also, while the Volt is going away, the battery technology developed for that vehicle, including the active thermal management system to keep the battery at its optimal temperature, has already been carried over into the Bolt.
The challenge for automakers now is to create compelling SUVs, trucks and crossovers that also happen to be electric.
Audi took a meaningful step in this direction with the Audi e-tron, the first next-generation all-electric vehicle to launch from the Volkswagen Group. It’s also the first all-electric passenger vehicle to hit the U.S. market with a charging rate of up to 150 kilowatts, which dramatically cuts down on charging time.
Recent trends show, as many expected, that as battery range increases and charging times decline, consumers will become more comfortable with all-electric drive. As more pure EVs come to market, it’s likely to accelerate the shift away from plug-in hybrids, and could, eventually, eliminate the need for gasoline entirely.