How Detroit Beat the Silicon Valley to the Breakthrough Electric Vehicle

It costs less than $40,000 and gets over 200 miles to a charge. The Tesla Model 3? Yes, and also the Chevy Bolt, which goes to market first. A New York Times technology columnist writes that 'size matters' when it comes to innovation.

3 minute read

September 26, 2016, 6:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Chevy Bolt

Steve Lagreca / Shutterstock

Remember the 2006 documentary film, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," by Chris Paine? The film shows how General Motors targeted its own EV1, a fully battery-electric vehicle manufactured to comply with a 1990 zero emissions vehicle mandate by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), for destruction.

Just over a thousand vehicles were leased in 1996. The film illustrates how G.M. showed there was no real demand for them in order to take them back at the end of the lease period in 1999 and crush them, regardless of how pleased leaseholders were with their vehicles.

Fast forward 20 years and General Motors is so adamant about building the 'first inexpensive long-range electric on the road' that it is in a race with industry leader Tesla, Silicon Valley's darling carmaker.

"A first affordable long-range electric car, which I drove last month and which blew my mind, is not a Tesla," writes Farhad Manjootechnology columnist with the The New York Times. "I had to fly from Silicon Valley to Detroit to drive it because the vehicle was invented not by a celebrated start-up, but by that hoariest cliché of tarnished American manufacturing glory, Chevrolet, which is owned by General Motors."

The car is the Chevy Bolt EV, a squat, wedge-shaped compact hatchback. It is an important car for G.M., and, in a larger sense, for the traditional auto industry. It demonstrates the seriousness with which automakers are taking the threat posed by start-ups that are promising to alter everything about the car business. Not only is the Bolt the first inexpensive long-range electric on the road, but it will also function as G.M.’s platform for testing new models for ride-sharing and autonomous driving.

The Bolt is also proof that, in the car industry, size matters — that even if they may be slow to come around to the latest tech, big automakers can alter the car business even more radically than Tesla has, purely as a function of their bigness.

Just as Elon Musk's 2006 'secret master plan' for developing the Model S, and now the Model 3, began with "plowing profits from [a two-seat roadster that sold for $110,000] into research and production capacity," G.M., as well as other large automakers, do the same, but on a much bigger scale.

G.M. enjoys the regulatory advantage of producing a fleet. Because the high-mileage, zero-emission Bolt helps the company stay under the federal government’s fuel-economy standards, it perversely allows G.M. to keep selling more profitable, gas-guzzling cars, like the Tahoe S.U.V. As a result, G.M. could lose money on each Bolt and still find the overall project valuable to its bottom line.

So, in a perverse sort of way, all those folks who are buying SUVs may be enabling automakers to manufacture the next generation of emission-free vehicles. 

The Model 3 goes on sale 'the last quarter of 2017.' The Bolt will be available 'later this year.'

Hat tip to Len Conly

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 in The New York Times - Technology

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