by Julia Pyper
January 22, 2019

We’re three weeks into 2019, and we’ve already seen two of the biggest auto events in the U.S. come and go — bringing a lot of electric vehicle news along with them.

The Consumer Electronics Show, held each year in Las Vegas, has quickly become one of the biggest auto shows in the world. As the auto industry navigates its way through a period of radical change, CES has become a critical venue for showcasing the mobility technologies of tomorrow, including 5G-connected autonomous cars, flying taxis and the latest and craziest in electric-vehicle concepts

Unveilings at the Detroit Auto Show were more down-to-earth by comparison. Familiar car brands rolled out production-style EVs, as well as a few futuristic prototypes. Other automakers talked a big game about their EV strategy, while putting their gas-powered trucks and SUVs front and center in their display.

In this week's column, we take a look at how some of the world's largest automakers used the two events to reveal their New Year's electric vehicle resolutions.

Nissan Leaf gets an upgrade; Infiniti to make its entire lineup electric

Nissan spearheaded the modern EV market with the launch of the all-electric Leaf in 2011 — which still holds the title for bestselling EV in the world. But competitors are rapidly catching up, while the Leaf has been falling behind. The current generation of Nissan Leaf comes with 150 miles of electric range, while Tesla and GM have been selling EVs with more than 200 miles of range for roughly two years now.

But the beloved Leaf is now, finally, getting an upgrade. At CES 2019, Nissan unveiled the Leaf e+, which comes with a new powertrain, a 62-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and 226 miles of range. The new Leaf Plus Series, as it’s also called, offers better performance and more features, including ProPilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system and e-Pedal mode for one-pedal driving. But it still trails the Chevy Bolt on range and comes in well behind the Model 3 on acceleration and torque.

Where the Leaf could have a clear advantage is on price. The current Leaf starts at $29,990. The Bolt starts at $37,495. And the Model 3 technically starts at $35,000 — except that Tesla isn’t currently making vehicles that are available at that price point. If Nissan is able to bring the Leaf e+ to market for less than its competitors, the car may be able to maintain its bestselling EV title and move back up the U.S. EV sales leaderboard.

The Leaf Plus Series is scheduled to launch at Nissan dealerships in Japan this month. U.S. sales are expected to begin in spring 2019, and European sales are planned for mid-2019. 

As potential buyers wait for the Leaf e+ to come to market, it’s worth noting that former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn is currently waiting in detention, facing multiple accusations of financial misconduct.

Nissan leadership has attempted to downplay the exec drama and keep the focus on its products and forward-looking strategy. At the Detroit Auto Show, Nissan announced that all future models under its luxury Infiniti brand would be either plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles starting in 2021. By 2025, the company expects those electrified vehicles to make up more than half of Infiniti’s global sales.

The Japanese automaker also unveiled two new battery electric concept cars in Detroit. The new Nissan IMs and Infiniti QX Inspiration represent a “complete reinterpretation" of how tomorrow's zero-emissions vehicles will be designed and engineered, said Nissan North America CEO Denis Le Vot.

Both vehicles feature a “cab forward” design, with their drivetrains, motors and battery packs located under the floors. Both concepts also feature fully autonomous driving capabilities, although one vehicle initially struggled to show any kind of driving capability at the Detroit launch by failing to roll onto the stage. The Infiniti QX ultimately had to be pushed into the display area.

While Nissan’s announcements may sound ambitious, the automaker is actually kind of late to the game. Infiniti will launch its first fully electric vehicle in 2021, while virtually every other brand is releasing its “Tesla competitor” within the next two years. Also, Infiniti’s commitment to electrifying all future vehicles includes e-Power vehicles, which have an electric motor but are powered by gasoline and don’t have a plug.

So while Nissan is striving to re-up its EV credentials, the pioneer still appears at risk of getting left in the dust.

Ford partners with VW, plans to make an electric F-150 pickup

Ford’s presentation at the Detroit Auto Show focused on the Mustang Shelby GT 500 — a 700-plus horsepower muscle car that is the opposite of fuel-efficient. But the American automaker insists its future is electric.

At a Deutsche Bank presentation in Detroit the same week as the auto show, Ford outlined its ongoing restructuring plan, which includes exiting the sedan market, shrinking its presence in Europe and partnering with Volkswagen. The VW deal, which received a weak response from investors, centers on making pickup trucks and commercial vehicles, but also includes collaborating on EVs. Despite being two of the largest automakers in the world, Ford and VW currently have very little presence in the U.S. EV market.

"Let's be candid: We were late. Now we think we're going to be a leader," Ford CEO Jim Hackett said at the Deutsche Bank event.

Future plans include a new Mustang-inspired electric performance car and, in a major move for the company, an electric version of the F-150 pickup truck — the most popular vehicle in America.

"We're going to be electrifying the F-series — battery electric and hybrid," said Jim Farley, Ford's president of global markets. He was light on details, including the launch date, but made the case that Ford’s manufacturing experience and brand recognition would give it a major advantage over competitors.

GM and Tesla have also announced plans to make an electric pickup truck. Startups, including Michigan-based startup Rivian Automotive, are planning to enter the market as well.

VW announces $800 million EV plant, launches Elli energy brand

In addition to formalizing its partnership with Ford, Volkswagen announced at the Detroit Auto Show that it will invest $800 million in a manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee that will be dedicated to making EVs. The new plant, where VW will build a new electric SUV, is expected to create 1,000 new jobs.

It’s unclear what incentives were offered to VW to build the plant in Tennessee. VW expects to roll out its first EV from the facility in 2022.

“The U.S. is one of the most important locations for us, and producing electric cars in Chattanooga is a key part of our growth strategy in North America,” said Volkswagen AG CEO Herbert Diess. "Together with our ongoing investments and this increase in local production, we are strengthening the foundation for sustainable growth of the Volkswagen brand in the U.S."

The German automaker has really revved up its efforts to sell EVs in the wake of the “Deiselgate” scandal — most recently, with the announcement of the U.S. manufacturing facility.

“We’re known as ‘the people’s car' for a reason, and our EVs will build on that tradition,” said Scott Keogh, CEO and president of Volkswagen Group of America, in a statement.

The Chattanooga plant will be VW’s first dedicated location in North America for production of a vehicle using its modular electric-drive toolkit, MEB for short in the original German. In addition, VW is building the first dedicated EV production facility in Zwickau, Germany and starting MEB production by the end of 2019. The company will also add EV production capability to facilities in Anting and Foshan, China in 2020, and in the German cities of Emden and Hanover by 2022.

VW said it aims to sell 150,000 EVs around the world by 2020 and 1 million by 2025. Volkswagen Group plans to commit nearly $50 billion toward the development and production of EVs and digital services worldwide through 2023.

In addition to vehicles, VW announced this month that it is also creating a separate entity to sell home-based EV charging and energy storage. The new company, Elli, which stands for “Electric Life,” will be headquartered in Berlin. If this business model sounds familiar, that’s because Tesla is already offering EVs, as well as home-charging equipment and residential energy storage. Mercedes is another automaker that attempted to get into the home battery business, but it dropped out of the sector last year.

GM faces protests, teases an electric SUV

General Motors’ hometown wasn’t so friendly this month as employees protested the automaker’s restructuring plan outside the Detroit Auto Show.

Last fall, GM announced that it would cease production of several sedan models manufactured in the U.S. and Canada, while continuing to support sales of its crossovers, trucks and SUVs, and prioritizing future vehicle investments in battery-electric architectures. The changes will shrink GM’s North American workforce by 15 percent, which represents more than 14,000 jobs.

Outside of a black-tie charity gala last week, UAW members, environmental activists and some elected officials rallied against the layoffs and questioned GM’s commitment to fuel-efficient cars.

“GM proclaims its commitment to a ‘zero emissions’ future, [but] it has decided to pull the plug on the hybrid Volt, which is manufactured at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, so it can focus on gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs,” one local group said in a statement released before the protest.

The American automaker’s auto show display didn’t present a counterargument. Cadillac, GM’s luxury brand, gave a sneak peak of a future EV it plans to make, but there was no physical car to point to. Instead Cadillac showed off a computer-generated model of an unnamed electric SUV on large screens following the official launch of the 2020 XT6 — a three-row, gasoline-powered SUV.

Days earlier, CEO Mary Barra announced to investors that Cadillac will take the lead in premiering the latest in electrified and autonomous vehicle technology at GM, marking a shift away from the lower-cost Chevrolet brand.

“Cadillac will be GM’s lead electric-vehicle brand and will introduce the first model from the company’s all-new battery electric vehicle architecture, GM’s foundation for an advanced family of profitable EVs,” according to GM’s 2019 outlook. “The flexible platform will provide a broad array of body styles and will be offered in front-wheel, rear-wheel and all-wheel configurations.”

Potential GM customers — and GM employees — will now have to wait for this all-new strategy to play out.

Hyundai gets wacky with a walking EV, autonomous wireless charging

Hyundai delighted technology wonks at CES this year by showcasing its new Elevate walking car concept. While it may sound far out, the Elevate is designed for specific real-world applications — such as helping first responders in the wake of a disaster and expanding transportation options for people with limited mobility. The concept is based on a modular EV platform, which allows for swapping out the vehicle body for different situations.  

But Hyundai’s walking electric car wasn’t the only piece of electric mobility tech the Korean automaker has teased so far this year. Earlier this month, Hyundai and Kia jointly unveiled a wireless EV charging system concept, combined with an Automated Valet Parking System. With this system, upon receiving the command from a smartphone, a vehicle will automatically drive itself to a vacant wireless charging station, fuel up on electricity and drive itself back to its original location. The idea is to make EV charging as convenient as possible by leveraging autonomous and wireless charging technology.

Hyundai and Kia are looking into commercializing this concept upon the launch of Level 4 autonomous vehicles around the year 2025. The automakers also plan to commercialize autonomous vehicles in various smart cities from 2021 onward, with a goal of launching fully autonomous vehicles by 2030. 

Kicker: Classic cars go electric

The EV revolution isn’t all about launching something new; vintage cars are going electric, too. Jaguar casually unveiled its “Concept Zero” E-Type when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drove off in one at their wedding last year. This month, Aston Martin built on the electric classic car trend by showing off a validation prototype of the all-electric RapideE. The EV is part of Aston Martin’s Second Century Plan to launch seven new models in seven years.

“We are very aware of the environmental and social pressures that threaten to restrict the use of classic cars in the years to come,” said Andy Palmer, Aston Martin Lagonda president and CEO, of the Heritage EV concept. “Our Second Century Plan not only encompasses our new and future models, but also protects our treasured heritage. I believe this not only makes Aston Martin unique, but a truly forward-thinking leader in this field.”