RUN GMC: China, EVs, and the future of clean automobiles

Posted by on Mar 21, 2018
RUN GMC: China, EVs, and the future of clean automobiles

“You know what FORD stands for, girls?” my grandpa used to ask my sister, Mattie, and me. “No,” I’d reply, but I already knew where his joke was heading. Being a General Motors (GM) car dealer led to an adamant, dedicated brand loyalty among the Fuson family lines, and jokes about other car brands were one of my grandpa’s go to bits of humor in his grandfatherly stack of jokes. Self-assuredly he replied, “Found. On. Roadside. Dead!” “But I though Ford was America’s first big car company, Grandpa?” I’d retort, perhaps already far too self-assured for my own good. “True, but still. We’re a GM car family, and if I ever find out you both are driving anything other than a GM car someday in the future, I’ll be rolling in my grave!”

I stayed true to the Fuson family, GM loyalty for many years; my first ever car was a Chevy Blazer (and a lemon!), my second a Pontiac Vibe (I wrecked it…), my third and my ever-faithful, hardy car – a GMC Envoy. But now, as a grad student on limited income and more concerned about car repair prices, warranties, and car part longevity, I’m afraid I’ve made my grandpa do a somersault in his grave. For a year, I’ve been driving a Hyundai Tucson…

This isn’t to say the GM franchise hasn’t been good to my family. Investments in, loyalty to, and cooperation with the GM brand have all helped the Fuson and Biggs family move along in life. Grandpa was one of the nation’s most awarded car dealership owners, he was the only Cadillac franchise holder for a good 60 mile radius surrounding our hometown, and investments in GM stock basically paid for my own and my siblings’ college tuitions (the same can probably said for all my cousins, too). The dealership is still a family-run business; my uncle runs Fuson Automotive now, and his son – my cousin – is set to take over after him. My own little brother works at the dealership every university break or holiday.

But as the GM brand has fallen out of popularity and stopped being included in the talk of petrol heads around the globe, my own affinity for GM cars too has waned. It’s expensive to keep an older, GM car running! Parts are expensive. Repairs more and more expensive. Above 100k miles, my poor GM cars have suffered. And so, I’m sorry, Grandpa…but I so do love this new Hyundai; it’s cheaper to repair, it has Bluetooth and XM radio, and Hyundais are statistically proven to run longer and better than any American car. But oh how I wish I didn’t love this car so much… I wish I could have been a GM kid like you wanted… It’s just…well, American cars just aren’t what they used to be. Just look at what’s happened to Detroit…

So when I heard the news last summer that GM was back on the tip of petrol heads’ tongues, my own interest piqued. Last October, GM announced it planned to create an entire new line of cars specifically catered to the Chinese market. This new line would comprise “at least 20 new battery-powered vehicles by 2023 … flexible enough to accommodate nine different body styles in multiple sizes, segments.”[1] While not as groundbreaking a feat as say, Tesla’s own investment in the world of electric cars, General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s announcement is, nevertheless, a welcome surprise! If all goes to plan, GM “will house two different businesses by the mid-2020s: a traditional focus in North America on trucks, sport utility vehicles and cars fueled with petroleum, and a global electric car company centered in China, branching into pay-per-use services such as robotaxis.”[2] China is currently the second largest market for GM products, and GM projects it can compete with Tesla’s own widely popular (yet expensive and short-range) electric car line and eat into the sales of Toyota’s Prius, the poster child for the American electric car. All of this comes as welcome, exciting news for the progeny of a GM family.

How does GM plan to even compete with the others in the EV (electric vehicle) market? General Motors claims it can markedly reduce their cost of production for both the EV battery and its component parts. First, they plan on “slashing the amount of cobalt in GM’s new EMC 1.0 battery system. The price of cobalt – the single most costly ingredient in current lithium-ion battery cells has soared in the past two years in expectation of a surge in demand from automakers.”[3] With a better battery design, a design they have already patented among the “661 U.S. patents on battery technology [they have been issued] from 2010 through 2015,” coming in second to Toyota’s own 762 battery patents, they are increasing the “amount of nickel, which enables batteries to store and produce more energy, …  developing more efficient packaging of batteries in vehicles and improved systems for managing energy flow and cooling the battery cells.”[4]

This all sounds wonderful, but what does it mean for GM car dealers and car manufacturing here in the United States? Like all worldwide marketplaces today, the factory with the lowest bid to produce a product will win without, and “[t]he answer [to GM’s gamble on EV success] is a big bet on combining proprietary battery technology, a low-cost, flexible vehicle design and high-volume production mainly in China.”[5] Just as China will serve as the major market for these new EVs, so too will China be the site of production. Now, while I understand the logic and larger drives pushing the worldwide marketplace, the kid in me, the one who remembers sitting across from my grandpa’s desk at his GM dealership as we ate donuts for Friday breakfast during his babysitting stints, laments the changes coming to an American icon, the GM car. EVs as the change? No, this is all wonderful, perfect, fantastic! I couldn’t be more thrilled about that new venture. But the idea that these new EVs will be made in China while my family’s GM dealership struggles more and more to market an American-owned brand, Chinese-made product, to an American audience who are more and more reticent to buy from abroad…that’s where my heart hurts.

However, just out this month, Automotive News is reporting that GM is bolstering up its Chevrolet Bolt, one of GM’s first EV ventures, in anticipation of rising global demand for the vehicle model. CEO Barra reported, “GM can easily adjust the Bolt assembly line in Lake Orion, Mich., to expand production. The car is built on the same line as the Chevy Sonic, and the plant currently runs on only one daily shift.”[6]

The Bolt is one of GM’s oldest EVs, and while increased US production is a welcome news for my own family, I still wonder what a GM, EV future looks like. And while GM’s proposed changes to the electric vehicle manufacturing industry and battery design look promising in lessening a car’s environmental impact (both at the stages of production and vehicular use), I continue to listen for the changes approaching the GM brand. Perhaps, if all the changes go as planned, I’ll be back in a GM vehicle, this time an EV, much to my grandfather’s ghost’s satisfaction.

[1] Muller, Joan. “How GM Plans To Bury Tesla With Onslaught Of Electric Vehicles That Will — Gasp! — Make A Profit.” Forbes 15 November 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2017/11/15/how-gm-plans-to-bury-tesla-with-onslaught-of-electric-vehicles-that-will-gasp-make-a-profit/#518a415f2341.
[2] Lienert, Paul and Joseph White, “GM races to build a formula for profitable electric cars.” Reuters 9 January 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gm-electric-insight/gm-races-to-build-a-formula-for-profitable-electric-cars-idUSKBN1EY0GG.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Kuli sch, Eric. “GM to hike Bolt output in drive for EV future.” Automotive News 7 March 2018. http://www.autonews.com/article/20180307/OEM/180309567/gm-bolt-production-increase