GM States The Obvious: 'The Electric Car Is Not Dead'

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January 15, 2013 - Detroit, MI. 2014 Cadillac ELR revealed at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

January 15, 2013 - Detroit, MI. 2014 Cadillac ELR revealed at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

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Well, duh.

The day after it unveiled the 2014 Cadillac ELR range-extended electric luxury coupe, GM's North America chief Mark Reuss told attendees at a trade event that "the electric car is not dead."

“That’s despite what you might hear, and despite what you might read about Americans not being ready for it," Reuss continued, "or about it being ‘under attack’ by local governments retracting incentives for it.”

Why did Reuss feel the need to say what should be obvious--from sales data if nothing else?

Largely because much of the media has confused underachieving on sales targets with failure in the market.

If you're inclined to think that the cup is half-full, then the fact that plug-in electric cars tripled their U.S. sales last year over the year before is good news.

But if you think half-empty cups make better headlines, you can point out that neither Nissan nor GM achieved the ambitious sales goals announced for their plug-ins before the cars went on the market in 2010.

Reuss was playing off the title of the documentary that slammed GM for taking back and crushing its EV1 battery electric cars a decade ago: Who Killed the Electric Car?

But the fact that he needed to say it speaks to a lack of general understanding of how the landscape will evolve over the next decade.

Recall that GM's product chief, Mary Barra, said in November that the company would downplay full hybrids in favor of plug-in vehicles, as well as its eAssist mild-hybrid system.

While the Chevrolet Volt didn't meet sales targets either for 2011 or 2012, its sales did triple last year, making it conclusively the highest-volume plug-in car sold in the U.S.

GM's Mark Reuss with 2012 Chevrolet Sonic at 2011 Detroit Auto Show

GM's Mark Reuss with 2012 Chevrolet Sonic at 2011 Detroit Auto Show

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Globally, the Volt and its Opel/Vauxhall Ampera twin are neck-and-neck with the Nissan Leaf for volume leadership among plug-ins.

And the Volt is engineered not only with a backup range-extender that eliminates driver anxiety over running out of juice, it also exploits less of its battery capacity and uses thermal conditioning to maintain optimal temperatures--which may extend battery life in the car's later years.

But the Volt, the Leaf, the ELR, and other plug-in cars are still at the very earliest stages of adoption, purchased by a variety of early adopters with varying motivations.

Mass-market acceptance of plug-ins will come, Reuss said, "when technology advances electric vehicles to the point where they offer comparable performance at comparable prices."

Reuss's comments provide a counterpoint to former GM product czar Bob Lutz's suggestion that GM should not have pursued the Volt--a car he famously championed--but instead electrified larger vehicles like the Cadillac Escalade and pickup trucks.

First Chevrolet Volt battery pack built at Brownstown Township plant, January 2010

First Chevrolet Volt battery pack built at Brownstown Township plant, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

The Lutz comments, of course, should be asterisked by noting that he is now a partner in VIA Motors--which is attempting to sell plug-in hybrid conversions of precisely those kinds of vehicles.

Reuss clearly knows the sales figures, the buyer survey data, and GM's future product plans.

“It takes a long time to change an industry, to change habits, and to change a way of life," he said.

But for plug-in fans, perhaps the most interesting nugget of news had to do with the next generation of the Chevrolet Volt, likely to arrive as a 2016 model or thereabouts.

That car, he said, "will be even better"--and, he noted, it will be "thousands of dollars" cheaper than the $39,995 base price of the 2013 model.

Most interesting, Reuss dropped a piece of news that hadn't previously been reported: The next Chevrolet Volt will have its own dedicated "platform," rather than adapting the global compact-car platform used for the Chevy Cruze sedan and other vehicles.

A dedicated platform for Voltec-powered cars--not only the Volt, but related models like the Cadillac ELR and perhaps a Buick Electra as well--will allow GM to do more innovative packaging, perhaps including a flat battery pack in part of the floorpan. Stay tuned for more on that piece of news.

Meanwhile, put away your black bunting. Electric cars are alive and well. It'll just take time.


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Comments (34)
  1. I don't think he needed to say this. By saying it he confirms the sentiment more than refuting it. Actions speak louder than words and GM's commitment to plugin vehicles can be best demonstrated by having a higher variety of them on the market, actively/seriously promoting them, and incrementally improving them.

  2. variety: first Chevy Volt, then Opel and Vauxhall Ampera and Holden Volt for international sales, then Chevy Spark, then collaboration with VIA motors for trucks, then Caddy ELR. It's coming along.

  3. SO if they try really hard they just might be able to do what Tesla has already done?

  4. Building a highly desirable Sports Sedan that most of us can't afford?

    It will be interesting to see how the Blue Star Sedan fair against the upcoming redesign of the 2015/2016 Volt...

  5. @Xiaolong - you have repeatedly criticized Tesla on the grounds that you can't afford one. You may want to keep in mind that a vast majority of the world's population can't afford your Volt, either. In fact the majority couldn't afford a used Pinto. I DO agree that it will be interesting to see how Blue Star fairs, but Blue Star requires that the Model S is successful, or it may never happen at all. For the record, I hope the Volt is a big success - I just wish it was a bit cheaper ;-)

  6. Well, it is a relative thing, isn't it? Tesla S (which I love) is out of reach for MOST American car buyers (2.5 to 3x the average selling price of new cars). Yet, the Volt (after tax incentives) is within the 10% of the average new car selling price in the U.S. (Sure, NOT everyone in the "world" can afford it. But NOT everyone in the world consume energy like the car cultures of the US)

    I would say that is a big difference. I have never knocked Tesla S for anything except for Price. Price is important. Without affordability, it will NEVER spread the BEV and EV technology beyond the 1%. Leaf has done far more gas saving and spread of the BEV than Tesla S.

    Sure, I hope Tesla becomes profitable and brings EV to the mass market.

  7. "A dedicated platform for Voltec-powered cars--not only the Volt,"
    That is the BEST news that I have heard in a long time. If this is true, then that is the BIGGEST committment that GM has made toward plugins/EVs. That would mean that GM sees a future in it and is willing to invest in a dedicated platform for that technology.
    If it is a good one, I might add a second Volt to my household.
    Of course, that is assuming that it is more desirable than the upcoming Tesla BlueStar Sedan (which is scheduled to be released around the same time).

  8. Re: "But the Volt, the Leaf, the ELR, and other plug-in cars are still at the very earliest stages of adoption, purchased by a variety of early adopters with varying motivations."

    Shouldn't this sentence mention the Model S instead of the ELR? The Model S is now being produce in similar numbers (20k per year), while the ELR is not yet i production.

  9. @Norbert: We don't actually know how many Model Ses Tesla has produced, and won't until the company releases its 2012 financials sometime during February. Otherwise, fair point.

  10. careful monitoring of the Tesla blogs, indicated they have sold and delivered about 3200 Model S vehicles. Not bad but the Volt is selling around 25,000 this year. The market will grow for both. I saw a Model S at a supercharger today, it was gorgeous.

  11. @John Voelcker

    According to the following article, Elon Musk recently said Tesla has reached its target production rate of 20,000 per year. Some of which are sold in Canada, but (currently) almost all in the US. Caveat: Sometimes such indirect quotes are not precise, and I'm not aware of a more official source.

  12. @ Norbert: Interesting link. It would appear that Tesla has successfully ramped up production to a rate that should result in the target 20K units in 2013. First profit however is only expected in the last quarter of 2013 which seems odd with production on target but I'm not a bookkeeper.

  13. The electric isn't dead (anymore), but it isn't alive either (yet): No info that any of them are already produced with a sufficient profit margin.

  14. "The electric car is not dead"? Who said it was? I agree with the first commenter that it a rather odd thing to say. Sounds a bit like a kiss of death really by a carmaker that seems none too be worried that plug-ins are only a slow growing market. The fact that GM choose the luxury coupe segment for its first expansion of the Voltec portfolio rather than segments with more mass market appeal like SUVs/CUVs is another sign that GM is aiming for fringe rather than mainstream. And Nissan's $8k price cut for the Leaf is now met with a rather non committal "thousands of dollars" in costs reduction for the *next generation* of Volts? I really don't see any signs here of a serious strategy to speed up EV adoption.

  15. @Chris - you may have put your finger on the key issue, here. Why should we believe that ANY of the major car companies have a serious strategy to speed up EV adoption? We even needed the new term "compliance car" to describe most of their corporate strategy. The only company (AFAIK) that has a stated corporate goal of electrifying the whole world car fleet is Tesla. If anyone can improve my poor attitude toward most of the corporate car world, please throw up a link (so to speak).

  16. @ Norm: The Volt was born when GM needed some green credentials to help warrant a bailout. They badly needed to shake some of that SUV/Hummer/electric car killer image. I don't say that was the only reason though, I think most carmakers do plug-ins these days for a host of reasons like compliance and hedging bets but few really have big plans for them, the exception being Nissan, but Ghosn's enthusiasm wasn't quite matched by the qualities of the ICE platform based, obsolete battery tech powered, questionably styled vehicle he had on offer. The industry is happy doing the same ICE powered vehicles it always did until some miracle battery comes along and do very small quantities of plug-ins on the side, which was basically Reuss' message.

  17. @Chris: Chronologically, that's not quite true.

    The Volt project was well underway two years before the 2009 bailout. The Auto Task Force actually tried to kill the Volt project because it wasn't projected to make money for GM, and Bob Lutz had to fight fairly hard to get approval to keep it going.

    The myth that "Obama forced GM to build the Volt," or alternatively, "GM built the Volt to please the White House," is surprisingly widespread--but it is a myth.

  18. @John: I think GM knew it would be needing the bailout years before they hit rock bottom.

    About the taskforce: different government institutions have different agendas. The taskforce looked at what would make money, the Obama administration was dreaming about 1 million plug-ins by 2020. I think GM knew who it ultimately needed to please.

    It's a common strategy too. Remember the Chrysler "Envie" project? A line up of improvised EVs scrambled when Chrysler faced bankruptcy. Never heard off again when it was Fiat rather than the government that bailed out Chrysler.

    I think it's naive to believe that securing access to the taxpayer's wallet was not among the prime reasons to do the Volt.

  19. @Chris O,

    If your opinion is true (which I think is crazy), then why doesn't GM build more BEVs to earn the "brownie points" then? Voltec powertrain is expensive and far more complex than the basic BEV. Why bother with something "realistic" than just building a true "compliance car" then?

    Your bias toward GM in general is quite amazing...

  20. @ Xiaolong: Some would call your see no evil hear no evil attitude towards GM "amazing" and your obsessive posting on GM's behalf somewhat "crazy", but let´s keep things civil and refrain from using that sort of language.

    Instead lets go with that you are just a huge GM fan, which interestingly was rather unheard off a few years ago in the days of old GM and before the Volt. So wouldn't you say the Volt really did win hearts and minds? And wouldn't you say the company was worth every penny of the taxpayers money? Maybe now you understand a little bit how these corporate strategies work?

    But even if the Volt started out with PR in mind I do think it got its own dynamic since for a company that needed to reinvent itself.

  21. There are more comments in this thread
  22. I disagree. A dedicated platform for a Voltec powertrain based cars is already a major step. No other automakers is planning to do that beside Tesla (but that is their ONLY platform).

    The current ELR is really just another luxury version of the existing Volt platform so GM can fill out the production capacity. Volt are selling at 3x the rate but still below what GM had hoped for. So, ELR will help somewhat with that extra capacity. The next generation should be a seperate platform like what John Voelcker described in his article.

    Also it is "easier" to build an electric luxury rather than a cheaper mass market EV. The profit margins are larger in the high end car. That is why Tesla did the S and X first, then Blue Star.

  23. Actually, I'm not quite sure what to make of the ELR. On the one hand there seems to be a complete mismatch between car concept and powertrain concept because the sort of people shopping for luxury coupes probably don't have "must have plug" high on their shopping list and the car should be cramped indeed on the inside, the cumbersome Voltec drivetrain eating up already sparse interior space.

    OTOH: maybe the car's good looks can persuade people to consider trying a plug-in vehicle they would otherwise have ignored.

    Either way this will sell in very small numbers. If you are serious about making plug-ins mainstream you need to target families. The Volt wasn't particularly family friendly, the ELR is just a niche of a niche.

  24. Looks sell the car. Fisker Karma sold few thousands too just on looks alone.

    Voltec drivetrain takes up space but it also remove any anxiety there is with BEVs. Many "traditional" buyers don't want anxiety. There are many sports coupes that have similar limited space. That is the market that Cadillac is aiming for.

    As far as mainstream goes, GM's next redesign should address that issue since it will have a dedicated platform instead of the "leveraged" existing compact car platform. ELR is only released after just 3 years in Volt's history, not enough for a complete redesign. It is designed for fill up some of that capacity space on the production line.

  25. Chris O,

    I just have to ask. HAVE YOU EVEN TRIED TO DRIVE A VOLT?? Caution: You'll love it. Drive it too long and you'll have to have it.

    We bought ours in November 2012 and like it so much we make a game of trying to list what we DONT like about it.

    1. The Charge port is on the left front where it can get hit by my kids walking out of the garage. We have to park it on the other side to eliminate this problem. We can't see it behind our 1997 Expedition (that we never drive anymore) when we look out the door into the garage.

    2. It's a 4 seater. More effort should have been put in to avoiding that.

    3. It handles like a sports car! I wish it handled like underpowered econobox. It's too thrilling to drive.

  26. Also, Leaf's $8k price cut is partially "fake" since it also reduced the "content" and "options" that came standard on the car before. But it is a major step toward affordability.

  27. GM did the same thing with the Volt, yet the price gap between Leaf and Volt is ~$10K now and the "thousands of dollars" in costs reduction for the next generation of Volts really need to be *many* thousands of dollars to ever bridge that gap keeping in mind that next gen Leaf should see some serious cost reductions too. I think Voltec is falling behind here.

  28. Voltec should be more expensive than the "econ" version of the BEV powertrain. That is the "cost" associated with range anxiety you would have to pay.

    Ask the Leaf owner who "blogged" about the recent tow experience on on which he depended on the Blink network to get around (Fast DC charger) and it let him down. Those stories are exactly the reason why Volt is ready for the world now and Leaf is ready for the future which is many years away until we have the infrastructure.

    As far as falling behind goes, I have seen plenty of Leaf drivers falling behind on the hwy to conserve energy so they don't get stranded... If driving 55mph and no heat is the way to "stay ahead", then it will never be ready for the real world.

  29. it's a pity the Post Office can't electrify it's delivery fleet. Short range, low speed, an ideal milk float.

  30. Cost... USPS is already losing money.

  31. FedEx, UPS have deployed electric trucks in their fleets in a number of major international cities. On another corner, USPS has a congressional mandate to pay huge amounts into future retirement funds limiting operating capital and funds to maintain aging equipment with few options to grow revenue. (Recent considerations included talk of starting an USPS clothing line)

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