M20A-FXS 2.0-liter in-line 4-cylinder engine and Plug-in Hybrid set up in right-hand drive orientation. (Photo supplied by Toyota Motors Corp., Japan)

GM Is Suddenly In Love With Plug-In Hybrid Technology, But Which Models Will Get It?

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Pity the poor legacy American automakers. First Tesla proved that people actually like electric cars and want to buy them. And so GM and Ford and (belatedly) Stellantis started developing electric cars. Then Tesla hit the big time, opening new factories in China, Germany, and Texas, and the Big Three kicked their electrification programs into high gear. GM had a rather nice plug-in hybrid called the Chevy Volt that it took offline in 2019 to concentrate on the Chevy Bolt. Then it got busy developing a range of electric pickup trucks and SUVs.

GM coined the word “Ultium” to cover all its electric vehicle efforts. They would be built on the Ultium platform and use Ultium batteries and Ultium motors. It signed major new contracts with LG Energy Solution to build new battery factories even after the billion dollar boondoggle involving Bolt battery fires. It changed its focus from pouch cells to cylindrical cells. It pushed back the introduction date of its electric SUVs and trucks again and again.

Like Volkswagen before it, GM found it had major issues getting the digital side of its electric vehicles to work properly. Early examples of the Blazer EV were simply undriveable. Projected starting prices ballooned by thousands of dollars at the same time the news was full of stories about how the cost of batteries was falling.

Plug-In Hybrid Models Coming From GM

Now GM says it will bring more plug-in hybrid models to market. CleanTechnica readers already know a lot about plug-in hybrid vehicles. We know there are some that are essentially short range electric cars with gasoline range extender engines and some are essentially conventional cars that get a little boost from an electric motor once in a while. The Chevy Volt was a very competent PHEV. It had an 18.3 kWh battery that allowed it to travel about 55 miles before the gasoline engine kicked in.

Since the average American drives less than 30 miles a day, the Volt could easily handle daily driving chores on battery power alone and recharge overnight. That way, Volt owners could avoid using the gasoline engine most of the time. In fact, GM programmed the engine to start up and run for a while every three months or so just to make sure the oily bits stayed lubricated. But when the need arose to travel further, Volt owners were free to drive as far as the gas in the tank would take them and range anxiety was never an issue.

The Voltec powertrain was quite brilliant, actually, but the Volt was based on the Chevy Cruze and when GM decided to take the Cruze out of production, the Volt died along with it. Sort of, anyway. A version of the Voltec powertrain in the Volt has been used in China for several years in a car called the Buick Velite 6. Plug-in hybrids are quite popular in China, but most of them have a battery-only range of 50 to 80 miles. The Buick makes do with a battery half the size of the one used in the Volt — 9.5 kWh. Why that would be is anyone’s guess.

So, GM has years of experience with plug-in hybrid powertrains. Why didn’t it leverage that knowledge to build more PHEV models for customers in North America? Why didn’t it put the tools it had available to work to lower emissions from its vehicle lineup? Legacy automakers are always whining about how hard it is to lower those emissions, why not lead the industry in showing how new technologies can accomplish the goal of reducing emissions while building cars that customers actually want to drive?

The Plug-In Hybrid & Charging Infrastructure

The root cause of all this angst is that traditional automakers like GM diddled and dawdled when it came to building reliable charging infrastructure. Whereas Tesla went out and built its Supercharger network so people who bought its cars would know there were reliable high power charges conveniently located along major transportation routes, GM, Ford, and Stellantis sat on their hands and waited for someone else to do the heavy lifting. As a result, drivers of their electric cars are confronted with broken or malfunctioning chargers on a daily basis. Who could blame them for turning their backs on EVs?

Shouldn’t an executive like Mary Barry who gets paid nearly $30 million a year have been able to look down the road and see this problem coming? (I have offered to do her job for half that amount, but have yet to get a call for the GM board.) Now the citizens of the United States are going to pony up $5 billion to build the charging networks the companies should have built but didn’t. But it will be years before all those chargers get built. In the meantime, plug-in hybrid cars and trucks will be asked to fill the gap.

Which raises this question. Which models will get the PHEV treatment, when will they be ready, and will they work when they get here? The latest data suggests plug-in hybrid vehicles are the least reliable and suffer the most fires. Clearly PHEV is not a magic cure for everything that ails the car industry.

Car and Driver thinks the Chevy Equinox is a prime candidate for the plug-in hybrid treatment, primarily because GM is planning a PHEV Equinox for the Chinese market, albeit with a turbocharged gasoline engine whereas the Velite 6 has a normally aspirated engine. While everyone loves the idea of a turbo, in a true plug-in hybrid, the engine is just there to make electricity. Adding a turbo suggests it will play a more prominent role in powering the wheels than it would in a true plug-in hybrid like the Volt.

Autoblog writes that there are reports from industry sources that suggest a plug-in hybrid version of the Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup trucks is being rushed into production. Few if any details are available, but it seems unlikely those trucks will use a pure PHEV system like the one in the Volt. More likely is that they will be gasoline powered with battery assist. From past experience, drivers of those vehicles tend to skip the plugging in part and just use the gasoline engine most of the time. That suggests GM is planning on building compliance vehicles so it can pretend it is doing something about the climate emergency while actually doing as little as possible.

GM is said to have canceled an electric pickup sized below the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz. Automotive News said it saw the truck in January 2023 and describing it as a futuristic two-door with a low roof and a 4.5-foot cargo bed. An electric Chevy El Camino, perhaps? What a tantalizing thought that is. There was also a plan to make a full size van similar to the Chevy Express/GMC Savana based on the Brightdrop chassis, but it also has gotten the ax.

Autoblog adds that Ford has apparently stopped working on an EV pickup a bit smaller than the Nissan Frontier. Also, battery-electric versions of the Maverick pickup and Bronco SUV now won’t see the light of day “until at least the early ’30s.”

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The Takeaway

This is all rather dire news for CleanTechnica readers who have been following the EV revolution for more than a decade now. And of course it is music to the ears of fossil fuel interests who want to see the transition to electric vehicles slowed so they can continue selling their death-dealing products a while longer. This can all be traced to a lack of adequate charging infrastructure. If GM, Ford, and others suddenly find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy, it will be because their leaders failed to include charging in their EV business models.

Autoblog sums it up this way:

“For non-Chinese manufacturers, the breakthroughs in price, technology, and infrastructure that will make EVs appealing to the average consumer are still down the road a bit. And when the Chinese manufacturers get into Western markets en masse, they will force a reckoning, whether they win or lose.

“If the cars meet the standards of the average buyer at prices that have Ford CEO Jim Farley and Tesla CEO Elon Musk already giving public warnings, the familiar OEMs will suffer some ugly, if temporary, beatdowns. Should the Chinese cars fail — like, the price is right but the ownership proposition isn’t — the OEMs and naysayers will chirp, ‘See, there’s more to this than people want to consider.’ We have a feeling the ground won’t stop moving for a while, and in fact, we suspect the tremors will only get more pronounced.”

The big winner here will be Tesla, which will continue to rake in money from selling carbon credits, money it can use to continue expanding its Supercharger network. That must be particularly galling to business leaders like Mary Barra and Jim Farley.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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