Will GM’s Bolt be a Tesla Killer?
September 22, 2016
At a climate solutions talk several years ago, I gave a glowing description of exotic electric vehicles like the Tesla, and showed how the technology was further along than most people thought, with the innovations of then-little-known startup, Tesla Motors.
A very earnest member of the audience objected – “But we have to get away from cars completely – what about other alternatives and mass transit?”
I explained that electric cars are important because, even if the US were to launch an Apollo scale program to bring our mass transportation system up to European standards, a 20 year program under best scenarios – we’d still be relying on cars for a big chunk of transport. That’s still true – but there is a new wrinkle.
It may be that the mass transit solution that replaces automobiles, will be, radically rethought, automobiles.
As mass market EV’s now are becoming reality, we have an additional wild card, autonomous driving technology, – which, in combination with electrified transit,
seem ready to disrupt the way Americans, and the rest of the world, move around.
Autonomous vehicles will be here sooner than anyone thought, and they will have an internet-like impact on society.
That’s one reason why Uber has an estimated market cap 20 billion dollars higher than General Motors. Who knew?
But don’t count GM out, just yet.
If you can remember the time you asked yourself, “Why would I ever need to send an email?”, get ready for the world to be turned inside out again.
A first affordable long-range electric car, which I drove last month and which blew my mind, is not a Tesla. I had to fly from Silicon Valley to Detroit to drive it because the vehicle was invented not by a celebrated start-up, but by that hoariest cliché of tarnished American manufacturing glory, Chevrolet, which is owned by General Motors.
The car is the Chevy Bolt EV, a squat, wedge-shaped compact hatchback. It is an important car for G.M., and, in a larger sense, for the traditional auto industry. It demonstrates the seriousness with which automakers are taking the threat posed by start-ups that are promising to alter everything about the car business. Not only is the Bolt the first inexpensive long-range electric on the road, but it will also function as G.M.’s platform for testing new models for ride-sharing and autonomous driving.
But few industry analysts think Tesla will meet its production goals, and the very fact that there is a waiting list highlights its fundamental hardship. Tesla paved the way for the broad acceptability of electrics, but the Model 3 is, at this point, merely a concept car. G.M.’s Bolt goes on sale this year, and the company will probably be able to make enough to satisfy everyone who wants one.
The Bolt isn’t a luxury car. It’s surprisingly spacious inside (it could easily accommodate two car seats for my children) and has a nicely designed touch-screen infotainment panel. But it looks and largely drives like a generic compact car. What is revolutionary about the Bolt is that it bridges category distinctions — it brings luxury car electric range at mass-market prices. In fact, it beats the luxuries. In their cheapest configurations, every Tesla gets a lower range than the Bolt.
“Normally for electric vehicles we talk about going from point A to point B and back to A,” said Darin Gesse, G.M.’s product manager for the Bolt. “This car is designed to go from A to B to C to D and back to A, so it has more of a lifestyle focus, and it’s not just a commuter car.”
I had an opportunity to test-drive the Chevy Bolt on Tuesday. Chevrolet this week confirmed the price of the Bolt at $37,495 — officially making it one of the most affordable electric cars around in a nod to the mainstream consumer. As we glided through the morning rush hour in Washington, one thing immediately became clear: Chevy has taken everything it has learned in its 104-year-old history and carefully broken with a few of the industry’s long-standing conventions. (Its rival, the Model 3, isn’t yet available, so its performance remains a mystery for now.)
Chevy’s reimagining of the automobile doesn’t go quite that far, but it does make some notable changes. For example, conventional cars often have a bump, which is called the transmission bump, in the floor that divides one backseat passenger from another, keeping each person’s feet separated and making life difficult for anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the middle. But the Bolt’s mechanical simplicity means its floor can be built completely flat, creating extra space that leaves the car feeling roomier on the inside. This feeling is only enhanced by the larger, taller windows that give the driver a wider field of view.
The company has also taken the opportunity to install what some users will find a novel — and possibly confusing — feature: one-pedal driving. This doesn’t mean the Bolt comes with only one pedal. It means that with a downward tap on the shifter, drivers can engage a separate driving mode in which they can use the accelerator both to speed up and to slow down.
One-pedal driving means that as soon as you lift your foot off the accelerator, the car immediately begins to decelerate, using regenerative braking to send energy back into the battery. During the process, it’s the motor that’s doing the braking. Your brake pads will thank you. The amount you lift your foot off the pedal determines how aggressively the braking occurs. There’s also a paddle on the steering wheel that can be used as an extra brake to slow you down even further and save even more electricity. And, of course, if you really need to slam on the brakes, you can still use the brake pedal.
Simply eliminating the drivers from cars, and keeping everything else about our system the same, will be a disaster. Picture zombie cars — those with no one in them — clogging our cities and our roads, because it will be cheaper to keep them moving than to pay for expensive urban parking, and cheaper to bring retail to a customer than to pay rent on a retail store. While the number of vehicle miles driven skyrockets, our transportation infrastructure revenues, dependent on the gas tax, parking, fees, and fines will disappear. Unemployment will spike as professional drivers will be be laid off in droves. It will be a nightmare of pollution, congestion, and social unrest. Let’s break it down.
Congestion. The traffic alone will make people curse the technologists who brought AVs to our streets. Right now, our “congested” roads and cities are mostly filled by individuals driving alone in their cars (75 percent of all trips). Just imagine our streets and your frustration when 50 percent of the cars have no people in them at all.
When we don’t have to drive them, we’ll use our cars more. My 2004 Prius costs me about $1.50 for an hour of run time. It will be cheaper to have my car double-park or circle blocks rather than pay for a parking meter or, heaven forbid, pay for parking in a downtown garage. It’ll also be cheaper to have my car pick up pizza or drop off dry cleaning than to tip a delivery person. Endless double-parking and block circling already happens in places where the cost of a human driver is either very cheap (think Delhi) or expense is irrelevant (think about luxury black cars in New York City).
But there is so much opportunity to love! If we steer toward it, and plan for it, we will get benefits that once seemed as distant and unlikely as those science fiction scenarios I mentioned earlier.
Shared cars. For starters, getting away from our wasteful model of car ownership totally eliminates the congestion problem. If we share rides in shared cars, we will only need 10 percent of the cars we have today. That also makes a huge dent in our pollution problem. Just as Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft have demonstrated, wireless technology and smartphones have taken almost all the hassle out of sharing. AV technology removes all of it.
I feel pretty confident about this estimate. It’s from an excellent study by the International Transport Forum at the OECD that used actual origins, destinations, and timing for trips in the city of Lisbon. This is in line with numbers I’ve heard from a modeler at Google, a transport planner for the Bay Area, and taxi studies in Singapore and New York City. I can even see how this happens. A bold mayor will be the first mover, welcoming a discrete pilot within city limits. A hundred cars will shepherd tourists, students, late shift workers, and the curious. No one will die. It’ll be cheap and convenient.
After all, these first vehicles won’t be cheap, so unlike personal cars, which are idle 95 percent of the time, these will be intensively used — rather like Zipcars (the company I co-founded) or taxis. Today, 50 percent of all Uber and Lyft rides in San Francisco are shared — meaning that passenger-strangers going in the same general direction are sharing the trip and enjoying a reduced fare. If I use Zipcar’s economics (like self-driving cars, Zipcar doesn’t pay for drivers), the company is profitable earning about $70 per car per day. The cost of “fueling” and maintaining electric cars is one tenth that of regular combustion engine cars, and the parking would be cheaper since most vehicles could be stored in distant locations the little time they are not in use. When we take trips in shared cars, the cost of inner city travel will be the same as bus fare and the trip time will rival personal car travel (especially once you remember you never have to find parking).
The very landscape of our cities will change. On-street and almost all off-street parking, including parking garages, will be unnecessary and we’ll get rid of them. Communities and local governments can come up with criteria and priorities for how to repurpose that newly available public space: wider sidewalks, more street trees and plantings, bike lanes, street furniture. Progressive cities will make use of old parking lots, garages, and gas stations to fix what was lacking: affordable housing, green space, grocery stores, schools. Proactive cities will know their priorities neighborhood by neighborhood, as well as their criteria for action, before the transition begins.