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?

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