2012 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
Sometimes memories are short.
Electric-car advocates often forget that it took seven years from the first Toyota Prius hybrid, launched in Japan in 1997, until sales of the second-generation Prius started to grow in global markets.
Now, General Motors appears to be the subject of suspicion and distrust over whether it's actually, truly committed to plug-in electric vehicles for the long term.
Slow sales, low numbers
The evidence suggests that it is--but that GM is not tipping its hand the way it did during the very transparent development process that led to the launch of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the world's first modern range-extended electric car.
Chevy Volt and Spark EV with Sen. Debbie Stabenow as GM expands Global Battery Systems Lab, Sep 2013Enlarge Photo
Sales of the Chevy Volt have been flat over the past two years: 23,461 were sold in 2012, but the number fell slightly in 2013, to 23,094.
While it currently has the highest total U.S. sales of any car with a plug, the Nissan Leaf looks likely to outsell it during 2014--and its annual sales are far from the 45,000 level projected before the Volt went on sale.
Moreover, GM's only other plug-in vehicle, the Chevrolet Spark EV battery-electric minicar, remains a compliance car built in numbers just high enough to satisfy California's zero-emission vehicle sales mandate.
Spark EV sales rarely even hit 100 units a month--and that's not going to move the needle on electric cars.
And these factors, combined with GM's destruction of its leased fleet of EV1 two-seat electric cars a decade ago, have led to persistent grumbling about the company's commitment to plug-in vehicles.
GM $450 million investment in Hamtramck assembly plant, Brownstown battery factory, Apr 2014Enlarge Photo
Lower costs, new investments
But quite a lot appears to be going on in the background for GM.
Eighteen months ago, Mary Barra--then GM product chief, now its CEO--said the company would downplay conventional hybrids and focus future development on plug-in electric cars.
The company's main mandate is to cut the cost of the lithium-ion battery pack, electric traction motor, and associated electronics significantly, so electric cars can be priced in the heart of the market.
The average U.S. vehicle sells for slightly more than $30,000 these days, and that's the spot where GM can compete effectively as one of the world's three largest automakers.
A year ago, then-CEO Dan Akerson said the next Volt has to be $10,000 cheaper to build, so the company can sell it at a profit.
GM manufacturing VP Gerald Johnson announces $450 million for Hamtramck, Brownstown plants, Apr 2014Enlarge Photo
Future electric cars
A $450 million investment in the company's Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant and its Brownstown battery factory, previewed last week and confirmed by GM on Tuesday, show a strong level of confidence in its electric-car future.
The funds will be split: $384 million will go to the Hamtramck plant for new tooling in the body shop and other equipment and upgrades, while $65 million will be spent at Brownstown for the company's "next generation of lithium-ion battery production and future battery systems"The assembly-plant updates are for the "next generation Chevrolet Volt and two future products," although GM did not say if those products are plug-in electric vehicles.
Today, the plant assembles not only the Chevy Volt and Cadillac ELR range-extended electric cars, but also the conventional Chevrolet Malibu and Impala sedans.
GM's Gerald Johnson, Michigan governor Rick Snyder, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan at GM event, Apr 2014Enlarge Photo
2016 Volt...and what else?
So, at a minimum, we know that GM will build a "next-generation" 2016 Volt with a "next-generation lithium-ion battery" plus a couple of unspecified new vehicles.
The most significant question then becomes: Will one of those vehicles be the 200-mile, $30,000 battery-electric car that might follow the refreshed Volt?
If so, GM would become the world's only carmaker selling range-extended and battery-electric cars in significant volumes.
If not, might it be the five-seat Volt family model?
Let the speculation begin.