Mar 4, 2020 - Economy & Business

GM begins historic shift to electric vehicles

GM CEO Mary Barra with the company's flexible electric vehicle platform. Photo: GM

General Motors on Wednesday took the wraps off a broad lineup of electric vehicles powered by a new proprietary battery technology, representing a dramatic transformation of the 112-year-old automaker.

Why it matters: It's a $20 billion bet over the next five years that GM hopes both consumers and investors will endorse as the company walks a tightrope between maximizing sales of its profitable gas-powered trucks and SUVs and delivering on a long-term vision for a cleaner, less congested world.

  • "I believe in my heart that we are doing the right thing and we will be seen as leaders in electrification," CEO Mary Barra told reporters at an event at GM's research and development center near Detroit.

Yes, but: Electric vehicles make up only about 1% of the U.S. auto market, and most of those are sold by Tesla. Other carmakers are rushing to introduce battery-powered models in the next few years, but consumers have shown little enthusiasm to buy them.

  • GM President Mark Reuss said the tipping point will come when carmakers solve all of the "pain points" currently keeping people from choosing an EV for their primary car — utility, driving range, charging infrastructure and value.
  • The 10 electric models it showed reporters and analysts Wednesday — mostly trucks and SUVs, including three Cadillacs, two Buicks, two Hummers and three Chevrolets — are the first step toward convincing them. They go on sale starting in 2021.
  • GM stock has been mired under its 2010 IPO price of $33 for years, despite the wider bull market — showing investors aren't buying its electric transformation story yet. Barra says they'll believe it when they see what GM delivers.

The state of play: It begins with GM's new Ultium batteries, jointly developed with South Korea's LG Chem, which can be packaged in a variety of formats, enabling a modular EV platform that will underpin everything from urban taxis to luxury cars, work trucks and high-performance cars.

  • Importantly, GM says lower battery costs — below $100 per kWh — combined with lower engineering complexity means the first wave of EVs will be profitable from the start.
  • "What we have done is build a multi-brand, multi-segment EV strategy with economies of scale that rival our full-size truck business with much less complexity and even more flexibility," Barra said.

Details: The pouch-style battery cells can be stacked vertically or horizontally inside the battery pack, allowing engineers to optimize energy storage and layout for each vehicle design.

  • Battery options between 50 and 200 kWh could provide a driving range of 400 miles or more with 0 to 60 mph acceleration as little as three seconds.
  • GM says most EVs will be charged overnight or at work, but the cars are designed to charge at public DC fast-chargers as well.

Behind the curtain: GM showed reporters and analysts the new GMC Hummer electric pickup truck, as well as an SUV version of the Hummer.

  • It also showed a mid-sized luxury SUV, the Cadillac Lyriq, whose spacious interior includes a 34-inch curved LED display across the dash and rear seats with a high-tech console.
  • It also showed a mockup of a full-size electric SUV, similar in size to the Cadillac Escalade, and a concept design for a new flagship Cadillac sedan.
  • Also on display were mockups of a Buick SUV and a crossover, as well as a mid-sized Chevrolet crossover, and next-generation Chevy Bolt EV hatchback and a slightly larger Bolt crossover.

What to watch: Production is expected to begin in fall 2021 at a GM factory in Detroit, its first assembly plant dedicated to EV production.

  • GM and LG Chem will also break ground soon on a new battery cell production facility in Ohio that will power the new electric models.

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