Concept cars are always great fodder for gawking at automobile shows, and in turn they do a fine job of generating buzz and stellar photographs. But at this week's North American International Automobile Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, one concept car suggested a game-changer: Sustainability and affordability can work together and finally offer consumers a compelling gasoline-free driving option.
On Monday morning, GM revealed the Chevrolet Bolt EV concept, an all-electric car that is designed to offer more than 200 miles of range, with an affordable sticker price of $30,000. Paired with GM's introduction of the 2016 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), which boasts an extended range, company executives who spoke at the unveiling — including CEO Mary Barra — boasted that their line of alternative-fuel vehicles proves that the world's sixth-largest automaker is committed to a future with attractive cars not necessarily powered by gasoline or diesel.
The Chevy Bolt, if successful, could solve the affordability question for electric vehicles (EVs) while addressing “range anxiety” that still spooks consumers from committing to the purchase of an electric car. Tesla’s Model S, for example, makes many swoon with its design inside and out, not to mention its range of 265 miles. But at a sticker price ranging from $70,000 to $94,000, it is little more than a dream for most consumers. Plenty of far more economical EVs, such as the Chevy Spark, are more interesting to the average consumer — until they realize the typical range before needing a recharge is well under 100 miles. True, the average daily commute is about 50 miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But even if the typical driver doesn’t trek from Los Angeles to San Francisco that often, he or she still wants that option — hence one of the many reasons behind the common and ongoing driver bias against EVs.
Current economics give every indication that bias could grow even stronger. At a time when gasoline has fallen below $2 a gallon in many regions of the U.S., EVs are under even more pressure to deliver performance and value. True, the question of a future spike in oil prices is a question of when, not if. Nevertheless, consumers have quickly responded to the fall in conventional energy prices. Truck sales are surging, and automakers showcased new conventionally fuelled upgrades during NAIAS. The U.S. economy is also on the rise, which will move consumers closer to that new car purchase — and promises of cheap gasoline could nudge them to a pricier, more luxurious option.
But low energy prices notwithstanding, automakers cannot ignore long-term evolving consumer trends. At one time, scoring a driver's license at the age of 16 was as American as apple pie; now delaying this rite of passage until one reaches his or her twenties is not uncommon. The changing driving habits of millennials, in sharp contrast to those of their parents, will have long-term consequences for automakers. When those buyers finally do make their first automobile purchase, they are keenly interested in hybrids, EVs and PHEVs. Add the fact that urbanization means drivers want a vehicle that can squeeze into a tight space, and we see the post-1980 crowd shying away from SUVs, the driving status symbol of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Automakers are not going to shy away from electric vehicles — doing so would alienate a fastidious consumer segment that is already slow to committing to automobile purchases. Furthermore, the commitment to EV battery research and development was evident in a tour some of us took of GM’s sprawling Technology Center in Warren, Mich., 20 miles north the NAIAS and downtown Detroit. Engineers and scientists, surrounded by the millions of dollars GM has invested in testing equipment, work round the clock to try to crack the code for longer EV range.
Furthermore, despite the catcalls over GM’s public relations struggle with battery fires — not to mention the ongoing dismissive commentary about EVs in general — the Volt became a success story as the company emerged from the 2008-2009 bailout. As GM executives and engineers constantly reminded journalists and bloggers during our time in Detroit, Volt owners rank as the most satisfied car owners, according to repeated surveys done by the venerable J.D. Power and Associates. Volt owners have banded together to form the kind of brand-cultish devotees over which any company would salivate — whether they talk about miles between fill-ups, the car’s design and overall performance, and of course that joy of driving an EV, its torque. The 2016 Volt promises even more, or should we say, less: a new propulsion system; a lighter drive unit; fewer battery cells; promises of 1,000 miles between fill-ups; a quieter ride; and, in a sign that EVs are growing up, that coveted fifth seat in the back of the car.
GM’s continued success with the Volt could carry over to its flashy new EV Bolt, which GM execs said could hit the market in 18 months to two years. The Bolt’s promised range would be double that of the Nissan LEAF, inspiring more consumers to take the plunge and go fully electric. The four-door hatchback design is similar to many conventional cars popular with consumers. But most importantly, it sends many signals to the automotive market and consumers: Rather than compete with Tesla, the Bolt would complement it by attracting a different consumer demographic. And at a time when everyone feels pressured for time, it eliminates that pesky errand few of us enjoy doing — buying gasoline, a task many Volt owners gleefully say is a rarity.
At a higher level, GM’s commitment to EVs has shown that the car companies are listening and are accepting long-term economic and demographic trends. Once known less for innovation and more for fighting mileage and environmental standards tooth and nail, automakers are now showing that concerns over volatile fuel prices, climate change and the desire for the latest in technology affect more consumers’ buying choices. What may appear as token corporate responsibility now could pay off as a smart business strategy once oil prices undoubtedly rise again.
Disclosure: GM paid for Leon Kaye's attendance at the 2015 NAIAS.