The Chevy Bolt Won't Make a Dime for GM

Impressive though the engineering may be, the big-battery EV is simply not economical

Photo: GM

Has GM beaten Tesla Motors to the punch? Has the world gone topsy-turvy?

In a feature article in the February 2016 issue of Wired, the journalist Alex Davies proclaims that Chevy, with its Bolt crossover, has stolen a march on the Bay Area start-up in the race to produce the first mass-marketed all-battery electric vehicle (BEV). (See my article, “A Tesla in Every Garage? Not So Fast,” on the challenges of producing all-electric supercars for the masses.)

Part of what makes Davies’s article so interesting is that is a refreshingly contrarian departure from the usual hagiographic treatment of Elon Musk, the precocious info-age Young Turk supposedly running rings around the sclerotic rust-belt competition. It is far past due for a clear-eyed discussion on the economics of BEVs, and Davies does explore this question in some depth. If GM is serious about battery electric vehicles, it has the wherewithal to be a major impetus in any EV revolution.

And therein lies the rub: General Motors has a rather spotty record with advanced automobile technologies. The sad fate of the EV-1, the EV that GM birthed and then killed, is a potent reminder of this rustbelt warrior’s ultimate priories. 

Davies believes GM is serious this time. Granted access to company insiders, he points to the Bolt’s new battery pack, which gives a range of 322 kilometers (200 miles). The 200-mile figure has a kind of mystical hold on the imaginations of EV aficionados: build such a battery, the reasoning goes, and the EV consumer will come. 

In order to understand the origins and power of this idea, a little history lesson is in order. In fact, there is absolutely no reason, sociologic or economic, for the claim that an energetic, powerful battery is the sine qua non of commercial electric automobility. To be fair, Davies notes that the 200-mile figure was cooked up, more or less arbitrarily, apparently, by none other than Musk, a man for whom less is never more.

The ironic reality is that range anxiety (and capacious, powerful batteries as the antidote) is an invented psychological condition, devised by the mainstream auto industry 26 years ago as an excuse not to deploy zero emission vehicles as mandated by the California Air Resources Board in September 1990. Horrified at the prospect of being forced to produce an all-battery electric car, then the only industrially plausible zero-emissions vehicle, auto executives denigrated the technology. They said it did worse than the internal combustion engine-vehicle in every performance metric except emissions, the essential defining quality of electric drive and the chief reason it was attractive in the smog-shrouded California context in the first place. Long EV range, and the battery that would achieve it, thus became the Holy Grail of air quality politics: a never-ending quest for perfection that allowed automakers to defer mandate quotas indefinitely.

So Davies gets it right that government decisions, and industry’s dilatory response, have driven the development of EV technology. But he provides no evidence that GM has changed its tune. To be sure, automakers across the board have been reluctant to produce all-battery electric cars for very good reasons. Batteries have far shorter lifespans than the electric motors they power, so BEVs have hidden replacement costs that consumers may or may not be willing to pay. Consider as well that no major automaker except Nissan produces its own EV batteries, meaning that money leaves the automaker with each EV built, and with each cycle of battery replacement. Finally, nobody yet knows how to price aging EV batteries, rendering opaque the rationale for user ownership and the economics of used BEVs.

Accordingly, automakers find it difficult to plan BEV fleet obsolescence. In short, they have yet to figure out how to make money on the technology.
It is for these reasons that Toyota looked to hybrid electric technology in the early 1990s as the basis of a low-risk electric vehicle that would be culturally and economically attractive in the California air quality regulatory regime. The original Prius used a small and relatively cheap battery in boost mode only—the car used it as an aid to acceleration, not as a sole source of power. That meant the battery didn’t discharge as deeply—and thus age as rapidly—as the larger, more expensive “pure” EV battery.

Davies’ observation that Toyota is unaccountably absent from the 200-mile BEV game misses the salient point that the company’s Prius hybrid, millions of which have been built, became a profitable entry-level electric vehicle, the only one any automaker has yet produced. The Prius is the mass-market electric vehicle.

General Motors understood this too late. Whereas Toyota produces diverse vehicles for all economic and cultural seasons, creating space for the sort of incremental, hedged technological experimentation we see in the Prius, GM’s business model has been a paradoxical blend of conservatism and risk-taking. It is not news that GM has long based its fortunes on big, gasoline-thirsty, profitable vehicles, essentially a single lineup that thrives in times of cheap fuel and in contexts where environmental regulation is not a factor. What is not well understood is that when these conditions change, GM is typically wrenched from stasis and responds with ad hoc engineering virtuosity. So it was with the EV-1, a technological marvel that was never introduced for sale and never intended to make money.

Alarmed by the sales success of the Prius in the mid-2000s, GM vice chair Bob Lutz hatched the Volt as a kind of technological leapfrog. It was designed as the ultimate hybrid, a dual-mode plug-in equipped with a battery packing 15 kilowatt hours, more than 16 times as much as its counterpart in the baseline Prius. That made possible a very long battery-only range (38 miles).

But although the engineering of the Volt was impressive, the car did not leapfrog the Prius in economic terms. Arriving 15 years after the Toyota pioneered the hybrid market, only some 100,000 Volts have been sold to date versus the eight million hybrids of all types that Toyota alone has sold since 1997.

Reason: The Volt provides much more battery than the user needs, adding cost and risk for consumers as well as the producer. Much the same is likely to be the case with the Bolt. Far from being a rational development of the Volt, as Davies claims, Chevy’s 200-mile EV is as much an impromptu response to existing BEVs, primarily Nissan’s Leaf and Tesla’s Model S, as the Volt was to the Prius. 

Indeed, the level of risk is far higher for the Bolt than it was for the Volt because no pure electric vehicle has yielded a profit to date. The Leaf really is what Davies claims the Bolt will be—the first mass-marked BEV. Some 200,000 have been sold, and yet it is still a loss leader. The increasing popularity of the Leaf lease option shows that Nissan (with the help of US state and federal subsidies) is willing to shoulder the risks of large EV battery ownership for the time being as it searches for a way to cut costs, including a possible shift to cheaper battery cells made by LG Chem.

The bottom line is that Davies muddies the waters about what the Bolt represents. The vehicle is simply not the first mass-marketed BEV. And despite his suggestion that mass-marketing equates to profit-making, Davies has no evidence that GM planned the Bolt as a money-spinner, either. Far more plausible are the alternate theories that he deploys at the end of the article, almost as an afterthought: that the vehicle is a means of improving GM’s corporate average fuel economy and “changing the narrative about GM.”

Here, I think Davies is spot-on, but he contradicts himself in his concluding claim that the Bolt represents a sea change in the way automakers view the future. The BEV is surely here to stay in niche roles, but the day of mass-market electric automobility has long since arrived in the form of the hybrid. 

Guest blogger Matthew N. Eisler teaches the history of science at James Madison University. His first book, Overpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea, was published by Rutgers University Press in 2012.  

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