Mark Phelan: Here's how GM can finally turn electric vehicle technology into big profits, sales

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Business News

Can General Motors finally convince buyers it's a leader in electric vehicle vehicles and technology? With billions of dollars on the line and high-profile EVs in development for all its brands, the stakes have never been higher.

GM has been the auto industry leader -- briefly -- in EV technology at least three times since the mid-'90s, with little to show for it.

"GM has perennially traded leadership in electrification back and forth with Toyota," Eric Noble of consultant The Carlab said. "They've invested billions of dollars for years."

So why is Toyota synonymous with the Prius hybrid, while GM's Chevrolet and Cadillac brands remain most closely associated with gasoline-burning pickups and SUVs?

"High profile EVs from Chevrolet -- the Volt and Bolt -- had little influence on the image of the overall Chevy brand," in Kelley Blue Book's Brandwatch analysis, KBB senior analyst Patti Chapman said. "While excellent products, both were relatively low volume and played in small segments of the market.

Brands are mostly defined by their high-volume vehicles like the Ford F-150 and Honda Accord, Chapman said. "The Volt and Bolt were simply never big enough sellers to have a positive impact on the Chevy brand."


GM's electric showroom

So why didn't GM start with electric pickups and SUVs back in 1996, when it launched the EV1, a little car that could be described as two seats on a cart loaded with batteries?

Because batteries were too heavy and expensive to be feasible in big, heavy vehicles that tow boats and go off-roading.

"Having the best technology is not a guarantee of success if you don't put it in vehicles the customer wants," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for Navigant Research. "GM had great technology, but the market for small cars like the EV1 was limited, the Volt was expensive, and the Bolt arrived just as buyers switched from cars to SUVs."


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