Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

The all-electric Rivian R1S SUV. Source: Rivian

Autonomous Vehicles

Big Automakers Grudgingly Buy Into EVs. Oil Majors Still Lag Behind

Small, nimble startups are leading the shift to electric cars, while big U.S. automakers and oil majors are struggling to keep up.

Originally published by Nexus Media.
By Jeremy Deaton

Small, nimble startups are leading the shift to electric cars, while big U.S. automakers and oil majors are struggling to keep up.

The all-electric Rivian R1S SUV. Source: Rivian

In just three years, many electric cars will sport the same sticker price as their gas-powered counterparts, according to a recent analysis. Electrification, as well as other advances like ride-sharing and driverless cars, will radically overhaul the transportation sector. The next decade will see sweeping changes to the way we get around, and everyone is coping with the news differently.

The nimble startups at the vanguard of this technological shift are celebrating the growing popularity of EVs, while big U.S. automakers, though still firmly committed to trucks and SUVs, are grudgingly starting to build electric cars — a fact that was evident at the New York International Auto Show last week. The oil majors, who have the most to lose from the rise of plug-in vehicles, are dipping their toes into the charging station business, though none has jumped into the deep end.

A ChargePoint EV charging station. ChargePoint recently secured funding from Chevron. Source: ChargePoint

Startups are changing the way we get around.

At the New York Auto Show, small companies were the biggest champions of next-generation transport. Luxury automaker Rivian made a splash showing off its high-end pickup truck and SUV, all-electric vehicles that promise a range upwards of 400 miles. The “outdoor adventure” brand is filling in a gap left by Tesla, producing EVs that can go off road and have enough trunk space to fit backpacks, tents, coolers and climbing gear. Like Tesla, Rivian plans to sell directly to the customer, circumventing dealers.

Forward-looking firms weren’t only selling to the luxury class. Lyft, which is embracing electric cars and driverless cars, is investing in public bike– and scooter-sharing schemes that offer more transit options to urbanites, believing that private car ownership is set to decline in the years to come. Meanwhile, firms like Coord and Carmera are gathering data on the composition of streets and the flow of traffic, information that can be used to streamline bike-sharing schemes, ride-sharing services and autonomous driving.

Big U.S. automakers are still focused on trucks and SUVs, but they are starting to go electric.

The blue-chip U.S. car companies are making investments in next-generation technologies, though they are less bullish than their smaller competitors. When asked which cars they were most excited about, exhibitors at the New York Auto Show pointed to fuel-intensive sports cars, trucks and SUVs.

Ford showed off its new F-150 pickup and Escape SUV, the company’s best sellers, as well as its latest Mustang sports car. Chevy highlighted the Blazer SUV and Silverado pickup. Jeep put forward its new Gladiator, which looks like a cross between a Humvee and pickup truck, while Dodge advertised a special edition Challenger sports car painted the color of fatigues in a salute to the troops.

Chrysler-Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan

To their credit, these companies — which have fought stricter fuel standards and largely avoided selling electric cars — are starting to wade into the EV business. Fiat Chrysler is now selling a plug-in hybrid version of its Pacifica minivan, while Ford has plans to sell a plug-in hybrid Escape, a stop on the road to a fully electric SUV. As part of its efforts to go electric, Ford announced Wednesday that it is investing $500 million in Rivian.

Chevy Bolt

General Motors is perhaps doing the most to keep up with the startups reshaping the transportation sector. To compete with Tesla, it developed the all-electric Chevy Bolt, a car that boasts roughly the same price and range as Tesla’s Model 3. To compete with companies like Zipcar, GM launched its own car-sharing program that makes GM cars, including the plug-in Chevy Volt, available to drivers for short-term rentals. To keep pace with firms like Lyft, GM is developing battery-powered driverless cars for ride-sharing

Oil companies are putting money into charging stations, but they probably aren’t giving up gas anytime soon.

Like the big U.S. automakers, oil companies are taking a hard look at the future of electric cars. In the last two years BPShell and Chevron have put tens of millions of dollars into startups that build, own or operate EV charging stations. A spokesperson for Chevron said the company is committed to “investing in the future of energy” and believes its play in the EV sector will give it key insight into the charging infrastructure business.

Proterra electric bus. Image via Proterra

Notably, these investments amount to pocket change for oil majors, leaving observers skeptical of their intent. Ryan Popple, head of electric bus-maker Proterra, told Axios that he is wary of oil firms who want to invest in his company, saying, “I would be worried to really disclose what we are up to, what our strategy is, to an oil major.”

Clean energy champions are similarly dubious. “Anybody who is suspicious of the oil industry’s motives is probably right,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. “I think these guys are usually nefarious. That doesn’t mean that they always will be, and someday they will have to change. I just don’t know if that day has come.”

Jigar Shah, co-founder and president of clean energy investment firm Generate Capital and a veteran of BP, offered a more nuanced view. He believes these investments don’t represent some villainous plan to undermine the EV sector, nor do they represent a big push into the charging station business. Shah said that oil companies are likely trying to shore up their public image by making nominal investments in charging stations, even as they remain committed to oil, which is what shareholders want.

EVbox charging station charging a Tesla Model S. Image via EVBox

Tim Kreukniet, vice president of business development for charging station manufacturer EVBox, explained that, for now, big investments in charging stations threaten to undercut their oil companies’ core business. “Even if Chevron takes a big position in EV charging and pushes for an accelerated EV adoption, it will cost them more in terms of lost revenue and shareholder value than they can make up for by selling [electricity] to EVs,” he said.

None of this is to say that oil companies don’t want their investments in emerging technologies to pay off. Shah pointed to earlier investments in natural gas. “When I worked at BP, [CEO] John Browne was buying up natural gas fields. He announced to the world that BP was going to become more of a natural gas company, and everyone laughed at him,” Shah said. Today, natural gas is big business for BP and other oil firms. The same thing could happen with charging stations.

The fact is that if these companies decide to change course, it will happen slowly. The oil majors, like the big automakers, don’t have luxury of burning through investor cash like the startups disrupting the transportation sector. They make decisions cautiously and with the approval of shareholders. If these corporate giants decide to shift direction, they will have to ease into the turn.

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.

Appreciate CleanTechnica’s originality and cleantech news coverage? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica Member, Supporter, Technician, or Ambassador — or a patron on Patreon.

Don't want to miss a cleantech story? Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Written By

A syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.


You May Also Like


There are reports that a significant refresh of the Tesla Model 3 is planned for next year that will reduce manufacturing costs.

Clean Transport

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Tesla Semi since the first article that I wrote for CleanTechnica four and a half years ago, and I’ve...

Clean Power

Investments in clean energy manufacturing jobs are geared toward a specific social end — as industrial policy. This benefits workers across the political divide...

Clean Transport

The Heritage Foundation claims that the Administration is circumventing the legislative branch by moving to force people into using electric vehicles. Is there merit...

Copyright © 2022 CleanTechnica. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries.