General Motors is going electric in a big way. This week the company announced plans for a new battery technology called Ultium that will have more range than Tesla and be used in a broad array of future EVs including an upcoming Cadillac luxury SUV and flagship sedan. GM says the technology uses less hard-to-get, hard-on-miners cobalt, and cell costs should fall below the $100-per-kilowatt-hour level that starts to make EVs more competitive than gasoline-engine cars.
The batteries will be built as rectangular pouches rather than cylindrical cells – more space-efficient – that can be stacked horizontally and vertically. GM promises 19 battery and drive unit configurations initially for affordable cars, luxury cars, SUVs and pickups. GM and partner LG Chem are scheduled to break ground in the next three months on a $2 billion plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that could create more than 1,100 jobs. Sorry, make that “good-paying jobs,” since this is an election year.
GM is spending this week briefing analysts, media, employees, and partners at its Warren, Michigan, Design Dome on its Empire Strikes Back strategy. Since fall, relative-newcomer Tesla tripled in value and is worth more than GM and Ford combined as analysts see Tesla being the best pure-play for people who want to get in on EVs as an investment. “GM is building toward an all-electric future because we believe climate change is real,” said chairman and CEO Marry Barra Wednesday. She pegged GM’s EV investment at $3 billion annually.
One attention-grabber is GM’s claim that its new battery technology will provide a range of 400 miles or more per charge, slightly topping the 390 miles Tesla claims for the Tesla Model S Long Range sedan. (Tesla, for its part, plans to lay out its future EV and battery plans within the next month or so.) GM didn’t go into detail on what size battery pack would accomplish the feat, although you’d obviously need larger packs for larger cars.
The new battery technology will have configurations from 50 kWh to 200 kWh for cars and SUVs. Performance vehicles will achieve 0-60 mph acceleration of as little as 3 seconds. GM says most will have 400-volt battery packs, and support for Level 2 charging (possible at home with 220 volts) and DC fast charging at up to 200 kW. The truck platform would have 800-volt battery packs and 350 kW fast-charge capability. This would include commercial vehicles.
For both cars and trucks, the pouch cells will allow for even higher energy density and lower centers of gravity. The ability to stacks cells horizontally or vertically is unique in the industry. GM also says battery management is built-in and – compared with the current Chevrolet Bolt – reduces battery pack wiring 80 percent.
GM says the new cells will have “the highest nickel and lowest cobalt content in a large format pouch cell.” It also says its researchers are working to eliminate cobalt as one of the battery components. Currently, cobalt is tough to mine, comes from countries that are not always friendly to the US, and working conditions are said to be unsafe, although there’s considerable discussion about whether that’s because of inherent dangers or because the mining companies don’t treat workers well.
GM plans an extensive rollout of new electric vehicles starting this year. According to GM:
Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick will all be launching new EVs starting this year. The next new Chevrolet EV will be a new version of the Bolt EV, launching in late 2020, followed by the 2022 Bolt EUV, launching Summer 2021. The Bolt EUV will be the first vehicle outside of the Cadillac brand to feature Super Cruise, the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology for the highway, which GM will expand to 22 vehicles by 2023, including 10 by next year.
The self-driving, shared EV called the Cruise Origin was shown in concept form in January in San Francisco. Next up to be announced is the Cadillac Lyriq in April. The GMC Hummer EV will be introduced May 20 with production due to begin in fall 2020 at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant, the company’s first plant just for EVs.
GM is staking its massive investment on a big uptick in demand for EVs – whether voluntary, helped by tax incentives, or mandated because of concerns about climate change. GM says:
Third-party forecasters expect U.S. EV volumes to more than double from 2025 to 2030 to about 3 million units on average. GM believes volumes could be materially higher as more EVs are launched in popular segments, charging networks grow and the total cost of ownership to consumers continues to fall.
GM is right to be optimistic since there’s pretty much nowhere to go but up for the EV industry. The market last year for electric vehicles was 330,000 in the US out of 17.0 million light vehicles sold, 1.9 percent, and those 48 vehicles include both pure EVs and plug-in hybrids that go 15 to 50 miles on battery before the combustion engine kicks in (but not hybrids like the Toyota Prius).
Pure EVs, 18 models total, accounted for 245,000 sales, or 1.4 percent of the US market. But when Tesla Model 3, Model X, and Model S got done feasting on the market – with no tax credits to offer anymore – what’s left amounted to barely 50,000 sales. Just six pure-EV models managed more than 5,000 sales last year:
- Tesla Model 3, 158,925
- Tesla Model X, 19,225
- Chevrolet Bolt EV, 16,148
- Tesla Model S, 14,100
- Nissan Leaf, 12,365
- Audi e-tron, 5,369
GM had two other electrified vehicles on sale in 2019, the end-of-life Chevrolet Volt PHEV with 4,910 sales and the Cadillac CT6 PHEV with 24 sales. The year before Chevy killed the Volt PHEV, it actually had slightly more sales than the Bolt EV, but demand for plug-ins continues to be soft. Last year the Toyota Prius Prime was the second-best-selling electrified vehicle with 23,630 sales, but the only PHEV with more than 10,000 sales was the Honda Clarity, at 10,728. BMW has the most electrified vehicles, six, with five of them PHEVs.
History has shown that first-to-market status doesn’t always guarantee long-term dominance. Facebook was not the first social media platform. Remember Myspace? In other words, Tesla absolutely dominates the market for EVs today, but this is a long race, not a sprint.
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