GM’s surprising new stance on electric cars

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Second part in a series on the state of electric cars for American consumers

Aren’t they trying to trademark the term “Range Anxiety”?

General Motors, producer of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, the same manufacturer that requested a trademark on the term “RANGE ANXIETY” in July 2010, announced at the North American International Auto Show that they are planning on building an all electric car for the U.S. market.  So does this turnabout sound to you (as it does to us) that GM may not have a clear path in mind for their corporate future?

Keep in mind that General Motors spent an extremely large amount of money from 1996 through 2003 producing, selling, reclaiming, then crushing the first modern-era electric car – the EV1. A few of these cars exist today in museums, educational institutions and in deeply hidden archives of GM. This early EV experiment left many with feelings of ill-will toward the manufacturer when their car was taken away. These early cars were all leased to their users with no buyout clause written into the terms of the lease. Given this early investment in the technology, it does seem puzzling that GM’s next EV experiment (the Volt) was developed with a seeming bias against pure battery electric vehicles, as evidenced by their trademark request noted above. While the Volt is a production vehicle we consider it an experiment on GM’s part, as the build volume is miniscule by GM standards. Production targets have been revised upward as increased consumer demand has made itself apparent.

Given GM’s commercial about how great their plug-in hybrid is compared to a full battery-electric vehicle, they seem to be advertising against their own potential future product. According to GM CEO Daniel Akerson at the Detroit show regarding their future all-electric car: “It’s more of a metro car or an urban car, where the extended-range electric vehicle, the Volt technology,” offers much more flexibility, Akerson said. Contributing to the conversation regarding GM’s electric future, GM’s North American president Mark Reuss had this to say: “Forget about gas prices. The regulatory environment through 2016 is going to dictate what we do”. So lest you thought that GM was moving in this direction because it made good economic sense, or even that it might be good for the environment, it seems clear that GM is moving in this direction because they see government guidance moving them this way.

Regarding the all-electric car, GM plans to first offer the subcompact in China within the next two years. Clearly, GM has nothing in the works for the U.S. market prior to this. So GM’s approach to the small but growing electric car segment is apparently to create a lot of buzz with the first plug-in hybrid to market (Volt), and then to follow it up with nothing in their home market for several more years. By that time we expect to see a number of players in the pure battery-electric space. We see this as problematic for GM as their initial strong position established with the Volt will be allowed to stagnate with no supporting offerings to maintain their initial momentum. While we here at Living LEAF are strong supporters of the Nissan LEAF, we feel it is in the best interest of the industry for all three domestic manufacturer’s to have strong positions in this developing new technology, along with a strong presence from the Japanese big three as well. Next week we will take a look at how the Chrysler corporation is positioned in the electric car world.

Additional source material: Detroit News

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