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Are Startups Better At Making EVs Than GM?

Illustration of GM's 1966 Electrovan Hydrogen Hybrid

Illustration of GM's 1966 Electrovan Hydrogen Hybrid

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I laugh when I read bloggers' comments about General Motors being incapable of being able to engineer an electric vehicle. These folks diss GM for not being innovative. They diss GM for making money while building trucks and SUVs that American's wanted to drive. They write off GM as just being plain stupid.

Being from Detroit and knowing these companies as I do, I have a different take. To agree with the above, one has to ignore history that readily available to be studied and honestly parsed.

Responding to comments from intellectual luminaries like David Letterman about General Motors being inept, GM Global Electric Vehicle Development Executive, Frank Webber responded "There seems to be in the minds of many some sort of inherent conflict between being a large, traditional automaker and the ability to develop cars of the future. I couldn’t disagree more with that sentiment, and GM is on a mission to prove it.  ...At GM, we have a level of product research, testing and development as well as a supplier network that is unmatched. When you consider the very real distribution, volume and quality issues some of the smaller start-ups have experienced, it’s hard for me to see how they are better equipped than us to deliver the volumes necessary for real change."

Consider some of the truths in  Webber's comments: How many vehicles has Tesla Motors delivered? I'd wager that there have 10x as many articles written about Tesla than the some 400 cars they've delivered. Fisker Automotive doesn't even have vehicles for sale yet. So looking at the two big players in the American electric vehicle market, their net contribution is about 400 units in an automotive sector that is still running at over 9,000,000 units per year.

In other words, bit players get plenty of attention, but have yet to make a difference in the real world.

On the other hand, GM has made, and will continue to make a difference in terms of technology, and eventually, on the mass market itself.

Will GM's electric EV1 ever match up to its gas counterparts?

Will GM's electric EV1 ever match up to its gas counterparts?

Regarding GM's technical prowess, consider the EV1. Certainly destroying them was a gargantuan PR blunder, but no one can dispute the technical leadership those cars represented. Unfortunately, at a cost to build estimated at $80,000 in 1990s money, it was too expensive to produce at a profit (the reason GM is in business, remember).

Battery array under the hood of the 1966 Chevrolet Electrovair II

Battery array under the hood of the 1966 Chevrolet Electrovair II

But the EV1 isn't GM's only example of being a technological leader. If you ever have a chance to stroll through the GM Heritage Collection, you'll find the 1965 Electrovair II, a fully electric, highway-capable battery powered Corvair. There's also the 1966 Electrovan, an electric-hybrid that generated it's own power using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. This was the world's first hydrogen-powered vehicle.

No, I guess GM is incapable of innovating....

Unfortunately, these vehicles from the 1960s weren't economically competitive to produce, so they weren't. (Say it again with me, "GM is in business to make money.")

Lyle Dennis with the Chevy Volt Test Mule

Lyle Dennis with the Chevy Volt Test Mule

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For the most recent proof that GM is capable of building a meaningful, practical, and affordable electric vehicle, check out everything we have published on the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. My gut is that once the Volt goes into production, it will sell at rates that will be the envy of Tesla and Fisker, thus making a real impact in the market.

[Business Insider]

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Comments (4)
  1. "GM credited with EV1 development?"

    Who are you crediting with developing the EV1. GM? I'll give you a quick history lesson.
    The EV1 was the continued development of the Sunraycer, a GM sponsored solar race car that won the inaugural World Solar Challenge across Australia in 1987. The electronics for this car and the EV1 were the work of one man basically, Alan Cocconi.
    Cocconi couldn't get out of bureaucratic GM fast enough and when he did he took his EV electronics with him and founded AC Propulsion.
    They used these same Ev parts to build the first road going EV to use li-ion batteries in 2001 called the tzero and this car was the prototype for the Tesla Roadster with most of the same technology licensed by Tesla.
    Tesla have moved on to a better digital inverter design now but the same basic EV1 parts are still driving around, now in the BMW E-Mini test fleet.
    So what are bureaucratic bankrupt multinationals good for again? Sitting on technology for a decade and letting it rot while one man actually gets Li-ion powered EVs into production
    PS: REQUIRING all these fields filled to submit a comment is childish.

  2. "Where's the innovation again?"

    There appear to be a lot of excuses for why GM didn't build any of these miraculous vehicles you mention (or in the case of the EV1, why it stopped building them). This is, of course, the very argument against GM actually producing any "cars of the future." They are bottom line driven and innovation does not come from the bottom of a balance sheet.
    Your examples? A 1965 battery powered car and a 1966 hydrogen powered van. They're a little off the pace, don't you think. Neither of these vehicles was built for production nor sold. Neither of their technologies were used in production vehicles or spawned any innovation from GM.
    The critics aren't attacking GM on the lack of innovation. It's what they do with it after it is introduced, which as your examples illustrate, is not much.
    Say what you will about Tesla, but they are at least selling electric cars (and I believe they are also in business to make money.) How many Volts (or Cruz test-mules) has GM sold again?

  3. "Don't think so...."

    You bring up show cars from the 60's as an example of innovation? Surely there is something more recent that a 66 Corviar? There are folks out there converting their own cars to electric and have been doing so for years. How many electric cars does GM sell? You also through in the fact that GM is in business to make money... I ask, which decade did GM actually turn a profit? With your spin on things, you sound like the son of a loyal UAW parent... Times are a changing Sir... catch up.

  4. "it is to laugh"

    While GM's supplier network, engineers and experience have value, the ossified management cancels out any of those positives. GM has been the frog in the pot for too long, and now that the water is boiling they're done. No surprises there. That's why these small start-ups, with VC money and smart management and without the UAW baggage, are being taken seriously.

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