General Motors Hints at Producing a Pure Electric Car

By · June 13, 2011

2011 Chevy Volt

2011 Chevy Volt

Earlier this month, I attended the “Charged 2011 – EV Symposium Silicon Valley,” which explored how the San Francisco Bay Area might become the electric car capital of the United States. There was a lot of talk about charging infrastructure, fleets, and guidance for municipalities. But I also ran into Dave Barthmuss, G.M.’s western region group manager for environment and energy communications—and he had interesting things to say about future plug-in vehicles from The General.

Dave spoke on a panel entitled “Economic Case for EVs.” During his talk, he mentioned in passing that G.M. is already selling (and continuing to work on) all kinds of electric-drive technologies and vehicles—from conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrids to extended-range, fuel cell cars and pure EVs. I’ve been following G.M.’s hybrid, fuel cell and electric car work for about a decade, so I wasn’t too surprised to hear a bland general statement about the portfolio strategy—also espoused by many automakers dabbling in different green technologies.

On the other hand, for most of the past year or two, G.M. has focused its green messaging almost exclusively on the Chevy Volt and the benefits of the extended-range electric vehicle—a term the company invented to distinguish the Volt from other hybrids. And readers of this site know how much marketing banter has been spent on the tit-for-tat exchange between G.M. and Nissan about the pros and cons of a pure EV versus one that has a gas engine on board. G.M. has repeatedly called into question how many (or few) consumers will be willing to live with the 100-or-so-mile range limitation of a pure electric car.

"It Could Happen"

That’s why my ears perked up when Dave said that G.M. is working on hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric cars—all in an effort to extend the market for greener vehicles. He was responding to a question from Nancy Ryan, executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, who asked “What’s the top challenge of getting to 1 million electric cars by 2020 in California?”

(This is not President Obama’s goal of putting 1 million plug-in cars on U.S. roads by 2015—but potentially an even more challenging objective of getting 1 million electric cars in California alone by 2020.)

“It could happen,” Dave said. Somebody from the audience questioned that goal, considering how G.M. is only building 10,000 Volts this year. “You’re not contemplating how many more we’re going to build in the coming years,” Dave replied.

That comment, plus the earlier mention of a possible—even if only a remote possibility—of a battery electric car from G.M. prompted me to inquire further when the panel was over. “We’ve always talked about looking into plug-in hybrids or taking the range extender out and making a battery electric,” Dave explained. “They’re all on the table.

I asked if G.M. would make more vehicle-specific electric-drive cars from scratch or use existing platforms. “Who knows?” Dave said. “It could be a Volt and we could take the range-extender out. The range extender is a wonderful solution, but there are some folks who might want a full-functioning battery electric car. And we have to look at these questions globally.” (In January 2010, former G.M. product Czar Bob Lutz mentioned the possibility of a Volt EV—but he’s famous for talking out of school.)

Dave made sure to qualify his statement as conjecture. “We haven’t said that we’re doing it, and we haven’t said we’re not doing it.”

2011 Chevy Volt

In January 2008, G.M. said it would produce a small plug-in hybrid (as a Saturn) by 2010. There are new hints that the company is back at the drawing board and will be ready to show something at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show.

The only somewhat concrete info from Dave came in response to my question: “What’s the latest on a plug-in hybrid crossover SUV?” G.M. announced a plug-in hybrid small SUV soon after the first launch of the Chevy Volt concept in 2007—but despite a few concept iterations since that time, the project hasn’t been discussed in any detail.

Well, is G.M. moving forward with a small plug-in hybrid SUV? Dave answered my question with a question: “Are you going to the 2012 Detroit Auto Show?”

I replied, “Why would I want to go?”

Dave quipped, “Because it’s always great to spend January in Detroit.” He then added, “Stay tuned.”

Set your calendars folks: In the middle of January (at the latest), we could get a first look at a new plug-in hybrid SUV from General Motors. Then, who knows, some kind of return for G.M. to the pure electric car market?


· · 6 years ago

It's always great to read about potential alternative energy vehicles. But vehicles at car shows don't mean much. As the picture in the article shows from 2008 the plug-in Saturn, but that's not here. This year, Ford showed North America a C-Max that is no longer coming to a show room near anybody.

I hope it's true. I hope that GM shows up with something in January and continues to develop new technology. I'm just not holding my breath.

· Clint (not verified) · 6 years ago

With all the talk about new battery technology, constant announcements of new rapid-charging stations and improvements in range, I'm surprised that GM isn't working toward an all-electric model of something. I'm also surprised that they aren't announcing it to the world, given the heat by Mitsubishi, Nissan and Ford, just to name a few...

Maybe it's me, but does GM look like they're heading toward yet another failed opportunity?

· JJ - Can (not verified) · 6 years ago

Why don't they just dig up their old EV1 blue prints and plop the EV technology in a Saturn?
It's like they've been asleep at the switch.

· · 6 years ago

Did anyone chant "Range Anxiety", "Range Anxiety", "Range Anxiety" when the GM guy talked about EVs ? ;-)

· · 6 years ago

My impression of Dave Barthmuss in the "Who Killed The Electric Car" film (he was the GM exec. who stated that EV1s would "never" be crushed) is that he is very talented at talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. Sorry, Brad . . . but when he says things like "We haven’t said that we’re doing it, and we haven’t said we’re not doing it.” he is basically saying nothing.

The Saturn division? It's gone, JJ-Can. Saturn was a casualty of GM's 2009 post-bankruptcy realignment. They made innovative yet affordable cars up until around the turn of the century and were allowed a lot of independence back then. GM reigned them in after that. The division was a shadow of its former self when the plug was pulled on them a couple years ago.

In the classic "good ol' boy" Chevy vs. Ford arguments, I always went with Chevy. But it now appears that Ford will have the 1st pure electric with American branding (Focus EV) and it's going to take Chevy years to get something similar to the market. If you want a series hybrid, yes you've got the Volt. But GM hasn't had a pure EV since, well, Dave Barthmuss was telling us that EV1s weren't being crushed.

· · 6 years ago

Turning the Volt into a "pure" EV just by yanking out the ICE, etc. and putting in a bigger battery pack is possible I suppose -- but what compromises would be left in the design "memory"?

Unless they can improve the aerodynamics to be similar to the EV1, then it won't be close in efficiency. What is the Volt capable of for Wh/mile? Is it even as good as the Leaf (340Wh/mile)? The Illuminati Motor Works '7' has four seats, and it is a bit *better* than the EV1 (~155Wh/mile vs ~160-164Wh/mile), so we know that it is possible.


· Alysha (not verified) · 6 years ago

GM showed a pure electric Sail at the Guangzhou Auto Show last year.
And, it just appointed a head of electrification strategy in China. So it isn't new that GM is talking about a pure electric car. New to the U.S., perhaps.
I'll bet a lot of GM's electrification stuff will come out of China. It has a lot of R&D firepower there. Stay tuned for my blog on that.

· · 6 years ago

A pure EV from GM? I'll believe it when I see it.

My prediction is that it won't happen until/unless EVs from other manufacturers catch on and become a major market segment.

· · 6 years ago

GM: The plug-in car leader!

Who decided it wasn't worth it.
Who picked it's nose for a while.
Who decided to try a new hybrid idea.
Who fell down and broke it's back.
Who went bankrupt in medical bills.
Who ran really fast and almost caught up.
Who got tired and took a break.

GM: Picking its nose on the side of the road!

· · 6 years ago

I saw reports of the GM Sail, Alysha. It's an OK looking ride, although styled a bit too much like the frumpier later-production Saturns . . .

But a concept car with American branding being shown off half a world away isn't doing anyone over here any good today. When they bring it ashore, I'll recant and rejoice. Until then, I'm dgcolorado: I'll believe it when I see it.

· GSP (not verified) · 6 years ago

Ford will not have "the first pure electric with american branding!"

Tesla already sells the Roadster!

Wait, GM already leased the EV1.
GM also leased electric S10 pickups.
Don't forget Chrysler's EPIC minivan either.
Wait, Ford already sold Ranger EVs.
Wait Baker, Detroit Electric, and others sold pure electrics a loooong time ago.
Always think twice before you claim "first!" (especially with automobiles)


· · 6 years ago

OK, GPS . . . point well taken. But a Tesla Roadster is a sports car for millionaires. GM never sold EV1s . . . only leased and then crushed them. I assume the script was the same for the S10 pickup, but I guess I'm thinking strictly about passenger cars. Ditto with the Ranger and the EPIC (have to admit I've never heard of that last one before, but I now see that about 50 of them were made in early '90s) And, sure, lets think of every antique EV that was marketed a century ago and couldn't stand a chance of being street legal today.

No, I'm thinking compact car-size EVs (not necessarily trucks or vans) that can carry more than a single passenger and related luggage inside, be in the same class of comfort/safety that would be comparable to today's ICE powered ones, and that can be purchased outright (no lease-only, etc.) for a reasonable amount of money. The latter would assume that mass production is imminent, if not already underway.

Most would agree that the Japanese have just done it and already beat us to it (what else is new?) with the Nissan Leaf. But the Focus EV fits the sort of thing I'm thinking of, if I didn't exactly describe it with all those qualifications.

· · 6 years ago

Opps . . . I mean GSP

· · 6 years ago

Recall last fall GM announced an all electric Chevrolet Cruze for the South Korea market. Its batteries were to be sourced from LG Chemical and the propulsion system sourced from LG Electronics.

· · 6 years ago

Well, a Cruze EV is also potentially good news, indyflick. But I have a suspicion that east Asian markets will see these long before we get them over here. Here's a link showing that one and it's "sister car," the Daewoo Lacetti . . .

Hey, I really want to see a Chevy compact EV for sale over here. But the Leaf and Focus EV will have already beaten them to the punch. Chevy needs to simply build them, put sales stickers on them and not pussyfoot around with limited production lease-only market test programs, as I'm afraid they will likely do.

· · 6 years ago

Quote: "G.M. has repeatedly called into question how many (or few) consumers will be willing to live with the 100-or-so-mile range limitation of a pure electric car."

That statement is about to become practically a non-issue as public charging stations are installed - especially the QC variety. Refueling will be little different than for the current ICE's - hmm, my fuel gauge is getting close to empty, better find a refueling station...

· · 6 years ago

@Bruce N. "That statement is about to become practically a non-issue as public charging stations are installed - especially the QC variety. Refueling will be little different than for the current ICE's - hmm, my fuel gauge is getting close to empty, better find a refueling station..."

Would that what you say was true, but the standard for quick charging hasn't even been set yet (see numerous discussions here about the SAE) and even if it were, it would take time to install the myriad stations needed.

Also, quick charging is still a lot slower that pumping gasoline into at tank. A network of quick charge stations will make longer trips in limited range EVs possible, even practical, but I think it will still be different from driving an ICE car long distance and require more planning and time.

Perhaps someday the technology will improve (longer range batteries, even faster charging or, perhaps, battery swapping) to the point that the experience of driving an EV long distance will be similar to driving an ICE car. Until then I think that the best that can be hoped for is a bifurcated market with BEVs for local driving and PHEVs for longer trips.

· Alysha (not verified) · 6 years ago

@ Benjamin re: the Chevy Sail EV prototype I'm not sure what the car's looks have to do with its bonafides as an EV....

More importantly, your remark seems to assume that GM only does research for EVs to be sold in the U.S. in the U.S. The technology on a prototype shown in China is available for a car to be sold in the U.S. Just because it was shown first in China, don't assume it is only meant for the China market.

· · 6 years ago

"the standard for quick charging hasn't even been set yet (see numerous discussions here about the SAE) and even if it were, it would take time to install the myriad stations needed. "
There you go again spreading mis-truths.
There are several quick charging standards CHAdeMO is one and there are several others. Sure SAE hasn't approved one but the beauty of standards is that there are always so many to choose from :-) (a friend of mine always says this). SAE is only one standards body (there are also plenty of standards bodies to choose from as well).
If anyone wants to make a quick charging electric car (as Nissan and Mitsubishi have), they can simply do so.
It's ridiculous to wait for a single standard. I can think of very few times in history where the standard preceded a new technology (CDMA -vs- GSM, bluRay -vs- HD, Mac -vs- PC, Beta -vs- VHS, TastesGreat -vs- LessFilling, etc). If someone wants to make something happen, they just do it. Ford and GM are, as usual, just looking for an excuse to stall having to roll out an EV. Please quit repeating their lame excuses.
For the price of a single Volt, a Quick Charging station can be installed. If cars can travel 100 miles on a charge, you'll only need 30 of them installed in order to cross the USA. 300 of them would pretty much handle the minimum needs of the US for long-distance transportation.
If you can travel 300 miles on a charge like the Tesla Model S, you only need 10 of them to cross the US! You'll be able to rent the 300 mile pack for long trips if you don't want to outlay so much money for your daily use. There's no reason other companies can't do this except Nissan is too stupid and the rest would rather sell you an ICE vehicle than an EV.
While I'll agree that Quick Charging is 'still a lot slower than pumping gasoline', that's an irrelevant fact because you can do something else while you are Quick Charging but you have to just stupidly stand there while pumping gas.
This is not an impediment to deployment. Preservation of the status quo by the incumbents is.

· · 6 years ago

To add to what @ex-EV1 driver said - even if SAE comes up with a different standard, only the plug will change. Nissan is in charge of protocals and they will make sure it plays well with Leaf ;-)

· · 6 years ago

A car's looks, Alysha, doesn't have anything to do with its practical viability as an EV. But I think it was Elon Musk who came up with the phrase "punishment box." His contention is that developers of electric cars almost seemed to have traditionally gone out of their way to make EVs as ugly as possible. Here's one, for instance, that only its mother could love . . .

I happen to think that a lot of cars in the budget range - EVs or not - are purposely designed to look bland and unexciting . . . and I think that's a real shame.

When mentioning the Sail's lackluster styling, I cited comparisons with Saturn's later frumpy-looking models, simply because I think the ones that came from Saturn before then looked very nice, yet were still practical and affordable vehicles . . .

But, to use a phase made popular by some of my British friends, they "lost the plot" soon after. It was almost as if Alex Tremulis or Raymond Loewy were asked to leave the room and an Amish buggy designer came in to take over the styling department . . .

Yes, the latter one will still haul the groceries and not break the bank. But so did the first one.

Regarding GM's Chinese cars making it over here: there are still sore feelings regarding how GM behaved as it was backing away from the EV1 around 2003-04. I think Travisty's post (above) gets to the core of it. Some also look at the Volt and see backwards progress when compared to the EV1, as it is essentially a hybrid and not a pure electric.

Many have observed that car companies in general - not just GM - tend to keep their most interesting products (be it clever design or innovative drive train) away from American shores and aggressively market them elsewhere. I'm certainly not the first to make note of this.

It would simply follow the prevailing tend that a pure EV with a Chevy nameplate will be sold overseas and not ever offered over here. Like I've said before, I'll recant if I'm proven wrong this time. But I'm not holding my breath.

· · 6 years ago

@EVNow >To add to what @ex-EV1 driver said - even if SAE comes up with a different standard, only the plug will change. Nissan is in charge of protocals and they will make sure it plays well with Leaf <

If that's the case then I stand corrected.

@ex-EV1 driver, Making a long trip with a 100 mile range EV (more like 60-70 miles at freeway speeds and 80% quick charging) would be awkward, requiring a stop every hour or so. Doing so with a 300 mile range EV would be better but still require fairly long fueling stops, the difference being that the timing of stops would be more convenient. It also requires that the charge stations be in place, functional, and available. You may be willing to deal with these issues but I maintain that most drivers will not.

I fully expect that the technology and infrastructure will improve over time making long distance trips in EVs practical and routine. But to suggest that we are already there, or close to it, is overselling the current tech and may lead to a backlash.

The current and coming EVs have considerable utility for many drivers for local trips. My hope is that will be enough to make them successful and that an eventual quick charging infrastructure will be "icing on the cake", so to speak. As has been pointed out by others, a car doesn't have to do everything for all drivers to be useful. Your Roadster isn't really a practical family car, for example.

Perhaps there is also a difference in what is being discussed with "longer trips". It is one thing to be considering a trip that requires one, perhaps two charges enroute; to me that is more "extended local". Next month, however, I will be driving 1100 miles (one way) to N. Idaho. Even with a fast charge infrastructure in place (exceedingly unlikely for the foreseeable future in the Intermountain West) such a trip would be impractical in a Leaf and difficult in a Model S with the large battery pack (assuming such a car was affordable, which it is not).

I have two concerns with the discussion of charging infrastructure: One is the problem of over-promising and under-delivering by EV manufacturers and proponents, which could give a black-eye to EVs in general. The other is the notion that EVs aren't useful unless they can go long distances, which I think is widely believed by the general public, but false.

· · 6 years ago

Here's how your 1100 mile trip to ID would go in a Tesla Model S with a rented 300 mile battery, assuming 100 kW chargers every 200 miles:
miles Action
You'd get on the road at 5:00 am with a full 'tank'
200 You'd drive 200 miles at 70 mph, taking ~2 hours, 50 min.
Eat breakfast at 7:50 and charge at 100 kW for 40 min, leave at 8:30
400 Drive 200 miles for another 2 hours and 50 min.
Stop for early lunch, charge for 40 minutes, leave at 12:00
600 Drive another 200 miles, stop at 2:54 for snack and charge
800 Leave at 3:34 and drive another 200 miles, stop at 6:26
Charge for 40 minutes, and have supper
1000 Back on the road, drive another 200 miles, coffee break
10:00 coffee break, 20 minute charge
1100 drive another hour and 24 minutes,
Arrive at your destination at 11:30 pm.
A long day but 1100 miles in a day.

For comparison: AAA 2 hr/100 mile ICE trip would take 22 hours so they would assume you'd arrive at 3:00 am.

Things you've missed:
1) Fast charging is easy and doesn't require very many sites to cover a lot of territory (a small fraction of the $$ spent on the EV Project)
2) One needn't own a large battery, you can simply rent one when you need it with a company like Tesla who actually wants EVs to succeed.
3) EVs can be just fine for long distances, a notion denied by many EV enthusiasts who aren't helping wean us off of gasoline at all.

I'll grant that CO to ID might not be the first place for Quick Charge infrastructure but then the number of miles driven on that route is pretty small too.

· · 6 years ago

Worrying about the practicality of EV's because of long distance trips that are essentially less than 1% of driving needs seems a bit silly. A sports car can't carry a sheet of plywood or a load of firewood, yet they still sell. Personally I have no desire to drive more than 300 miles in a day anyway, and I might do that once or twice a year at most.

· · 6 years ago

@JRP3, That was the point I was trying to make, unsuccessfully it seems.

@ex-EV1 driver, That is an interesting scenario for doing such a long trip and it would require QC stations at just the right spots to work. In fact, a good bit of that drive isn't on freeways with freeway speeds or infrastructure. But it could potentially be easier than you suggest because I break it up into two days with a stop in northern Salt Lake City.

Nevertheless, I couldn't afford a Model S, now or ever, so it isn't even a remote possibility. Assuming that I wanted to own just one car — a Leaf, FFE, or something like that — a more practical solution for the annual long trip would be to rent an ICE or hybrid car for the trip. Yes, it isn't as "pure" as making the trip in a Model S but it is vastly more affordable.

My hope is that eventually 300 mile range EVs will become mainstream and affordable, along with the QC infrastructure. But that seems to be many years away. In the interim I would like to see the shorter range EVs, such as the Leaf, be successful so that driving electric becomes the norm not the exception. Disparaging them because they can't do everything, such as long trips, seems counterproductive to me.

Lastly, I will point out that I can't even GET a plain old Leaf here, and probably won't be able to until late 2012 at the earliest. I'd happily settle for that. If that makes me the enemy, so be it. Meanwhile, I hope that Tesla becomes successful and eventually can make affordable EVs for plebeian folks like me. I am rooting for them; I'd be thrilled to own and drive a Tesla.

· · 6 years ago

With EVs like Leaf or Focus Electric (apparently that is what Ford is naming the former Focus EV) - what we need are lots of L2 & quick chargers in cities. Esp. in urban conglomerates like SoCal or SF Bay Area - with incredibly large sprawls.

A quick charge at my destination would effectively double my range and make my EV more useful.

· · 6 years ago

Even an L2 charger at you destination usually effectively doubles your range. Minimal 3.3 kw is a lot less useful than 6 or 16 kW but if you're at your destination long enough it works.
Chargers are a lot cheaper than batteries.

· · 6 years ago

I think most EVs will support 6.6kw in a couple of years. But you run the risk of not being able to get a charger at your destination if someone EV is using it.

It is cheaper to install QC than half a dozen L2 EVSE - esp. if the space is tight.

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