Can GM or anyone else deliver a 200 mile range EV in 2017 to compete with Tesla Motors? Or are they all toast?

Chevy Sonic
possibly the base of a Chevy EV in 2017

The 200 mile range electric car from General Motors, badged with a Chevrolet brand, is possibly going to be announced in January at the Detroit Auto Show.  Chevy Volt fans are clinging to this idea while sales of that car are languishing and sales of the Nissan Leaf are thriving.  Over the last couple years GM’s management, like former-CEO Dan Akerson, have spoken about longer range electric cars as being a couple years away.  At the same time GM has to compete with the Tesla Motors of 2017 who is promising to start delivering a 200+ mile range electric car for $35,000 MSRP.  GM and the rest of the automotive industry had better come up with something or they’re all toast.

Today the Detroit Free Press quoted GM’s global product chief, Mark Reuss, as saying GM is “pursuing” a 200 mile range $30,000 MSRP electric car.  Yes, GM has to do this, but does “pursuing” mean that GM will definitively deliver such a car any time soon?

Reuss also promised a redesigned Volt that will “leap-frog a lot of the competition.”  This car will be shown at the 2015 North America International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, in January.

Reuss’s comments came at GM’s meeting for analysts and investors held earlier this week.  As Inside EV’s notes, the information was not published in the slide decks or other info that GM made available through its media website.  It only exists as comments made by Reuss in the meeting.

Green Car Reports has a piece out going over evidence for a 2017 Chevy Sonic EV with a 200 mile range.  It will be an adaptation of the current generation Chevy Sonic, not the next generation that’s due to arrive in 2018.  Production will be very limited, 1,800 vehicles or so, making this car not much of a competition for anything.  GCR expects the styling to remain the same as the gasoline Sonic, and I’d agree that with such a small production run it wouldn’t be worthwhile to change the style.

BTW all those factoids point to Yet Another Compliance Car from GM.

The big question worth real megabucks is “How?”  It’s obviously possible to build a 200 mile range electric car – Tesla Motors is doing so, and the Tesla Model S is far outselling the Chevy Volt.  That despite the huge price tag on the Model S.  To bring the 200 mile range electric car down to the $35,000 or $30,000 level means a whole new price/technology level for battery packs.

That’s what the Gigafactory is supposed to do for Tesla Motors, give them a drastically lower cost per kilowatt-hour for battery packs enabling Tesla to hit a $35,000 MSRP.

GM’s current battery supplier is LG Chem.  Over the summer LG Chem’s CFO was quoted by Reuters saying LG Chem plans to supply batteries for electric vehicles that can travel more than 200 miles per charge, by 2016.  A car maker was not named.  LG Chem supplies batteries not only to GM, but Renault, Ford and others.  Nissan may even switch to cells from LG Chem rather than continue making their own cells.

Unless, that is, Sakti3 can commercialize their solid state battery technology in time.  That company is promising 2x the energy capacity at 1/5th the cost.  Such a jump in price/performance would be a game changer for electric cars.

Over the summer InsideEV’s reported that GM was working with focus groups on a 200+ mile range electric car.  The details they’d published at the time had to be pulled, because the details came from a focus group member who was under a Non-Disclosure Agreement and wasn’t supposed to disclose what he had.

Among the comments on that piece are people noting we can’t have 200 miles range in a Chevy Sonic because the chassis is too small.  (EDIT: that has a $35,000 MSRP)  That would be true for today’s battery technology …but… what about tomorrow’s?  The main thing we hope for in future battery technology is higher energy density, meaning storing more kilowatt-hours of energy per kilogram of weight.

There are two energy density measures to consider.  Kilowatt-hours per kilogram, and kilowatt-hours per liter of volume.  If/when the battery manufacturers can improve either, it will be possible to fit more kilowatt-hours of energy into a small vehicle.  Note what I wrote about Sakti3 above – 2x the energy capacity means that if a Sonic EV fitted with today’s battery technology can hold 20-25 kilowatt-hours of energy, the Sakti3 battery could enable it to hold 40-50 kilowatt-hours.  That starts to be enough energy for 150 miles or even 200 miles of range.

With this kind of information its difficult to definitively say GM will be producing an 200 mile range electric car any time soon.  What I’m confident of is the prediction that GM, Nissan, et all, are toast if they don’t deliver such a vehicle and Tesla does do so.  The proof of Tesla’s seriousity is the $5 billion they’re investing in the Gigafactory.

In 2017 – 200+ mile range electric car, with $35,000 MSRP, and manufacturing lined up for 100,000+ per year volume at the outset, ramping up to 200,000 or more within a couple years.  That’s what Tesla Motors intends to do.   What are the other automakers going to do?

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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