Let’s be clear, despite various comments and announcements from executives at the “Big 3” auto companies (Ford, GM, and Fiat Chrysler), they obviously have yet to really embrace electric cars.
Let’s look at their recent/current plug-in hybrid and pure battery electric model offerings:
That’s it, a grand total of 3 currently available pure-electric vehicles (BEVs) and 5 plug-in hybrids across 3 car companies that sell 8 brands of cars and trucks. Two models (Cadillac ELR and Chevrolet Spark) were discontinued in 2016 and one, the Fiat 500e, is a compliance car and only available in two states.
Are the Big 3 About to Get Serious About Electric Vehicles?
Electric vehicle battery prices are declining rapidly and several forecasts put the cost to manufacture ICE vehicles and pure electric cars at parity in the next 5–7 years. Assuming Detroit auto executives generally concur with the timeframe of these forecasts, will the Big 3 soon respond and significantly expand their portfolio of electric models?
Despite what seems obvious to many industry observers, Detroit auto executives seem nonplussed. Clearly, they are going to have to be kicked in the shins, or possibly faces, before they embrace BEVs hook, line, and sinker.
One might think with the announced EV offerings from Tesla and the European and Korean auto manufacturers that the Big 3 auto companies would have big plans for the future. Hmm, let’s take another look:
So, unless I’ve missed something (I’m not including non-plug-in hybrid models such as the Mustang and F-150), the Big 3 have only announced ONE non-commercial EV for launch in the next few years. Repeat: One BEV from 3 companies and 8 brands in the next 3+ years.
Ford Motor Company: Talk, Talk
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January, I had the opportunity to speak with Ford’s Chief Engineer of Electrified Powertrain Systems. It was a sobering and disappointing conversation to say the least.
When I shared predictions from many industry experts that we would see average battery range around 300 miles in 5–7 years, I was told that “Ford just doesn’t see it that way.” Now, whether I and the industry experts are wrong, one of Ford’s chief competitors had just launched the 238-mile range Chevy Bolt. For the head of electrification at Ford to not believe that an average of 300 miles of range is attainable across several vehicles in 5–7 years seemed inconsistent with announcements from many competing automakers.
I had a similar exchange when discussing the increase in battery charging rates and corresponding decrease in time to charge to perhaps as little as 15 minutes for 200 miles of range — and was again told “Ford doesn’t see it that way because of physics.”
These comments were also from a representative of the same company whose then (now replaced) CEO Mark Fields had announced a few days earlier at CES that Ford would launch an affordable 300-mile range SUV in 2020.
But perhaps what was really telling is that Ford’s electrification plans also included regular hybrid versions of the F-150 pickup and Mustang. Let’s repeat this: Regular hybrid, not plug-in hybrid or even fully-electric versions of these two popular vehicles in 2020.
The iconic Mustang sold as a hybrid? Are Detroit executives drinking water from nearby Flint, Michigan? That doesn’t make sense. A hybrid emblem would be inconsistent with the brand essence of a Mustang. Now, what if you put something like a 75–85 kWh battery pack in it with enough horses to smoke an ICE Camaro? It would still be a shock to the Mustang brand, but at least its ability to outperform competitive models would provide some aspirational aspect. But a plain-old hybrid?
Despite the Fields statement about the future being all about electric vehicles, the actual model announcements didn’t come close to matching the rhetoric.
General Motors: Nice Job With the Bolt, But Hey, What Do You Do for an Encore?
GM at least has a strong EV in the award-winning Chevy Bolt. In February 2017, GM CEO Mary Barra revealed during a conversation with CNET’s RoadShow that the Chevrolet Bolt EV won’t simply be a standalone model — the platform will also be used for a “range” of different future electric vehicle models.
Now, almost midway through 2017 and after 6 months of Bolt sales, there is still no word on what these future Bolt-based models might be. I for one would like to see a true small SUV, perhaps a coupe-like crossover (think design, not price range of the BMW X4 and Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe) and a small pickup (yes, one can dream).
In April, GM launched the Cadillac CT6 Plug-In, a $75,000 PHEV. With 30 miles of electric-only range, the CT6 will probably outsell by 2–3 times the no-longer-produced Cadillac ELR PHEV, which sold 534 units in 2016. For the same price, however, you can purchase a Tesla Model S 75 with 265 miles of battery range.
But while there aren’t many specifics coming from GM, according to the Detroit News, Barra told analysts, investors, and media in a 1st quarter earnings call in April:
“Our internal focus is to make GM the first maker of profitable, highly desirable, range-leading, and obtainable electric transportation.”
With its investments in Lyft, Maven, and autonomous technology, GM like other automakers has its hands full dealing with the needs to innovate on many fronts. But with EVs being the perfect match for both autonomous and shared cars, GM may need to pick up the pace of its electric vehicle platform investment.
Fiat Chrysler: EVs Are Stupid, and Besides, We’re Just Trying to Survive
And then we have Fiat Chrysler. The Fiat brand has a nifty little 500e pure electric model that can be leased for as little as about $100 per month, but is only available in California and Oregon. Fiat Chrysler CEO Marchionne has not been a big fan of EVs and has stated that the company loses about $14,000 on each 500e sold.
And now the Chrysler brand has launched the highly anticipated Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan. If you are keeping score, that is one EV sold in two states and one PHEV across two brands, with nothing else concrete apparently on the radar.
Oh yes, we saw a cool-looking and futuristic Chrysler Portal pure electric “minivan” at CES. But it was a true concept vehicle and there is no timing on if or when it would actually ever go into production.
So far in 2017 we’ve seen solid, though not spectacular, sales for the Bolt, the ouster of Ford’s CEO, a few concept cars, some non-specific plans and not much else. If there are several EVs in the planning stages, then the US auto companies are clearly being more secretive than most of their foreign counterparts.
With auto sales and profits expected to decline — combined with the need to invest in autonomous technology and ride-sharing partnerships — investment in battery electric vehicle platforms is clearly going to be a tough conversation during board meetings of the Big 3. But, if these companies fall too far behind the EV progress of existing and new-entrant competitors, they risk survival in the long term.
In a future article, I will explore what factors might actually light a fire — or at least force — executives at the Big 3 to start getting more serious about electric vehicles.
Images: Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Ford Motor Co.
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