With the production version of the Chevy Bolt finally being shown, Wired Magazine got access inside the engineering and management teams responsible for that car, and has written an interesting inside story of how the Bolt came to be. It’s easy to dismiss GM as not understanding electric vehicles, this is the company that crushed the EV1 and performed lackluster marketing of the Chevy Volt. The main thrust of the Wired article is that GM, despite being a bloated oversized company, managed to beat Tesla to market with a “true electric car for the masses.”
The Wired article is interesting, and it makes a compelling case that the Bolt will mark a major turning point in the electric market.
But its telling of electric vehicle history is completely wrong. The EV1 was a cool spaceship of a car, and it was a crime that GM crushed it. To hear Wired tell it, the EV1 was a half baked science project, when in fact it was fantastic and if GM had exploited it properly they could have led the electric vehicle race by a mile. Instead their marketing of the car was extremely flawed, and they crushed the car in an attempt to erase it from our memory. At the same time the protesting EV1 “owners” are also off base, because they clearly signed a contract to lease (with no option to buy).
I couldn’t let that part of the Wired article go by without saying anything, and I hope you bear with me on that little detour. The real thing we have to ponder is the future, not keep alive recriminations over past actions and misdeeds. Let’s get on with evaluating the Bolt.
The key takeaway is the Bolt will have a year (or more) head start on other 200+ mile range electric cars. But by being limited to 50 kiloWatts for fast charging, versus the 120 kiloWatts from Tesla Motors, the Bolt will be less attractive for proper road trips than anything from Tesla. We don’t know yet how much difference this will make.
First true electric car for the masses?
One might say “wait – Nissan Leaf was first – right”? How can Wired (and GM, for that matter) say this? Marketing departments like to make big bold claims that might not hold air if examined too carefully. What’s the rationale to support this claim?
The argument made in the Wired article isn’t spelled out very well. Between what it did say, and very similar things said by GM’s CEO/Chairman Mary Barra last week at CES, we can draw this conclusion: The phrase “electric car for the masses” means one with sufficient range at an affordable price.
In other words, GM is the first company to start production of a 200+ mile range electric car priced below $40,000.
While details have yet to be released, GM describes the Bolt as having over 200 mile electric range, using a 60 kiloWatt-hour battery pack, and a price of $30,000 after the $7,500 federal tax rebate. The EPA certified range will probably be over 200 miles given that size of a pack, and the base MSRP will probably be $37,500.
That’s a low enough price to be affordable to a large segment of the car buying public.
The known timeline for other 200+ mile range cars in this price means that General Motors will have a one year head start, at least. That’s true even for Tesla Motors, who has repeatedly said the Model 3 would be unveiled in March 2016 and go to production in November/December 2017. Unfortunately for Tesla they have a track record of missing milestones, and it’s possible the Model 3 won’t go to production until 2018.
So, yes, GM has a significant head start on the affordable 200+ mile range electric car.
Is being ‘first’ all that’s necessary?
We don’t yet know how many Bolt’s GM plans to produce. Early indications are that there’s a significant number of people chomping at the bit to buy one. But maybe GM won’t throw enough weight behind it, or screw up on the marketing in some way, and result in low sales. In the Wired article, and some other press coverage I’ve seen, GM’s spokespeople won’t reveal sales targets.
More significantly is – how will GM be able to deliver on as complete a package as what Tesla Motors is offering.
The Tesla Model 3 is more than a car. It’s a combination of car plus charging infrastructure plus mystique plus other intangibles. For example, to my eye the Bolt looks kind of boring, whereas we can expect the Model 3 to look fantastic.
In other words – there’s a whole fleet of supposed Tesla Killers from different automakers. The Chevy Bolt is one of these. But do any of these Tesla Killers really understand what Tesla Motors offers and what it will take to “kill” its whole model?
We won’t know this for awhile. Given the lackluster rollout of inter-city fast charging for CHAdeMO or Combo Charging System, the Tesla Model 3 is more attractive because of the Supercharger network. Which would you prefer? The electric car you can take on continent-spanning road trips? Or the electric car trapped to your local urban area because there is no inter-city fast charging available?
Further, the Bolt is hampered by 50 kiloWatt fast charging. Yes, it has fast charging support – witnessed by the orange flap in the picture above. We don’t know yet whether fast charging is a pricey option, or a standard feature. And we don’t know yet how useful that fast charge port given the lackluster rollout of inter-city fast charging.
The charging speed determines effective trip speed, the faster the charging the more valuable the car is, and a road trip is much more feasible with the 120 kiloWatt charge rate of Tesla’s Supercharger. The difference is an effective trip speed of around 35 miles/hr with 50 kiloWatt charging, and around 60 miles/hr with 120 kiloWatt charging.
UPDATE: What I mean by this is the miles traveled per hours of a long trip involving several charging stops. This is written up in more depth elsewhere on this site – take for example a 600 mile trip, that requires 10 hours of driving time. The hours of charging time depend on the charging rate and the length of time the car will allow the car to charge on fast charging. GM released a press release about the drive train and battery pack and charging system which provides interesting details. END-UPDATE
There’s enough doubts in this section such that GM’s lead on 200+ mile range affordable electric cars may be the hoped-for success.
GM has a significant lead in developing a 200+ mile range electric car. Something the Wired article skimmed over is that, according to GM a press release last fall the company turned over most of the Bolt design work to LG Corp. Be that as it may, what counts is that General Motors will be first to market with this class of electric car.
Whether that turns into success for GM remains to be seen. What effect this will have on other 200+ mile range EV’s from other automakers remains to be seen.
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