General Motors (GM) seems keen to keep a strong focus on its coming long-range, affordable electric car — the Chevy Bolt. If nothing else is clear, it’s clear that GM wants to be seen as a leader in the electric car space. After unveiling the concept car in January (the first long-range and affordable electric concept car to be unveiled by any company), the response was strong and GM quickly confirmed that it would indeed build the electric car. If things seemed to be moving along fast then, now they really are — Bolt chief engineer Josh Tavel recently told reporters that the company had “accelerated things.” What exactly that means is not actually clear, though. The Chevy Bolt was supposed to arrive in 2017, but word on the street in February was that production would now start in October 2016. Whether the “acceleration” is in reference to the October 2016 plan, or the production schedule has been moved up again, hasn’t been specified.
Spy shots have caught Bolt prototypes testing, and Tavel said that GM is now testing 50 of them. We’ve also seen a thorough video overview of the aesthetic styling of the Bolt concept. GM has been getting the word out about the Bolt at just about every big event, with executives from the very top down highlighting it (see below). It seems clear that GM sees electrification as an important part of the future, and thus wants to be a leader in it. “GM wants to stake a claim to this market,” says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive. However, there are also signs of dishonesty and exaggeration, combined with what seem to be very low expectations (or capability).
GM CEO Mary Barra recently hyped the Bolt quite a bit to hosted reporters. However, her lines of enthusiasm were sometimes mixed with other messages. Below are a few Mary Barra quotes gleaned from here and here, with some extra comments from me in parentheses:
- The Bolt is “for regular people, not for the elites.” (At ~$30,000 after he $7,500 federal EV tax credit, that’s basically a given. The need to highlight that makes me think that 1) GM is still feeling a bit butt hurt that it didn’t produce the Model S; 2) GM realizes that electric cars are largely seen as expensive and wants to break up that misperception; 3) the Bolt, despite having a long range, will not be cool and snazzy enough to pull “elites” from Tesla* to Chevy; 4) GM got the “Occupy Wall Street” message and is engaging in some smart PR.)
- “To make the biggest impact, it takes an engineering organization with the scale and the expertise to build electric vehicles for everyone, not just the elite.” (Hmm… I’m not so sure about that. GM intends to produce 30,000 Bolts a year, a modest figure already surpassed by the Nissan LEAF despite its 84 miles of range. Tesla, in the meantime, aims to produce 500,000 electric cars a year by 2020, most of which would be the Bolt’s competing Model 3. It looks like Tesla is the one aiming to blow things up, not GM.)
- “You know, I went to Stanford. I did my master’s work at Stanford. And I love Silicon Valley. We work regularly with a lot of companies there. But that’s not the only place where innovation comes from. I love that energy. But there’s a lot of issues you’ve got to work through. You know, we will.” (That’s great messaging, but again, why is GM only aiming to produce 30,000 Bolts a year while Tesla is aiming to produce hundreds of thousands of Model 3s a year.)
- “Like the Volt, it will be affordable.” (Yeah, we got that memo….)
- “Affordability will really pave the way because customers are very rational. [They] are gonna do the math and they’re gonna figure out, ‘Hey, what works best for my use case?’” (Hmm, are you noticing a trend in the messaging?)
The big letdown with the Bolt is that GM only aims to produce 30,000 a year. I assume one of two things is behind this… or perhaps both. 1) GM is concerned demand won’t be higher, and it doesn’t want to end up with a big target that it misses by a long shot (if this is the case, one must assume that GM is much less confident about the desirability of the Bolt than Tesla is about the desirability of the Model 3); or 2) GM simply doesn’t have the supply chain in place (most notably, the batteries) to produce more than 30,000 Bolts a year. If the latter is the case, I think GM is showing just how challenging it is to scale up EV production, and is conceding the win to Tesla despite saying otherwise.
Mary Barra isn’t the only one at GM spreading the Bolt hype, of course. Here are some quotes from Pam Fletcher, GM’s executive chief engineer for electric vehicles, as well:
- “[GM will make] electric cars approachable to the all, not just the elite.” (Admittedly, it’s very nice to hear a big car company saying this — repeatedly — and referencing long-range electric cars like the Bolt.)
- “We will make electrification approachable, meaningful, and relevant to all.” (Well, it’s nice to know you will help, but Tesla and Nissan seem to be doing the majority of the trailblazing at this point.)
John Voelcker, the source of most of the quotes above, also quoted an unnamed person “close to the messaging process” (e.g., a PR person who isn’t an official company spokesperson), who got very explicit about GM’s competition with Tesla.
“In electrification, building electric cars for everyone isn’t Chevy’s third priority, it’s the first,” this person said. This seems to be another direct swipe at Tesla, since Tesla first produced a high-end sports car (the Tesla Roadster), then the Model S and sister Model X (a premium sedan and SUV), and next will produce the Model 3 (an affordable, long-range electric car that is supposed to be priced at $35,000 before the US federal tax credit (so, lower than the Bolt).
However, acting as if the Model 3 is a third priority for Tesla is ridiculous. The Model 3 has been Tesla’s explicit priority for years, but the company had to grow from an idea in Silicon Valley to a manufacturing beast, while becoming profitable, within just a handful of years. Very few people expected Tesla to be able to do so, but if it was to do so, it basically had to start at the high end of the market and work its way down. To act is if it could have started with the Model 3 is either dishonest or hugely naïve.
The person quoted above also stated: “It’s Chevy vs. Tesla and it’s on!”
Hmm, that exclamation mark would make a lot more sense coming from someone at Tesla, but I don’t think many people at Tesla would make such a statement. Tesla is on top of the auto world right now. It has one to two models on the market (depending on whether you count the Model X yet), and it already has a market cap of $34 billion, while GM has a market cap of $53.25 billion (no, I’m not going to spend an hour counting up the number of models it sells).
Again, the big kicker for me at the moment is production intent. GM aims to produce 30,000 Bolts a year; Tesla aims to produce hundreds of thousands of Model 3 electric cars a year. If this is Chevy vs. Tesla, what does that tell you?
*Full Disclosure: I am long TSLA (for obvious reasons).