As European and Chinese carmakers ramp up EV production amidst tougher regulation, their American rivals are feeling the pressure.
America’s largest automaker, General Motors recently announced plans for 20 new all-electric models by 2023, with two set to launch within the next 18 months. Mark L. Reuss, EVP of Global Product Development said, “General Motors believes in an all-electric future” and “GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles.” Shortly thereafter another big US carmaker, Ford, said it will add 13 electric models over the next few years, and make a $4.5 billion investment in the technology. CEO Jim Hackett said that Ford plans to “substantially ramp up its shift away from gas engines into electrification and connected cars.”
This shift may seem out of character for two companies which together sell more large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) than the rest of the global automotive industry combined. However it was GM that built America’s first truly mass-market electric vehicle (EV), the Chevrolet Bolt. For its part, Ford already has several hybrid, battery-powered and plug-in models on the road. This year the company appointed Sherif Marakby as Vice President of Autonomous Vehicles and Electrification, and set up a group to focus on battery-electric vehicles.
The willingness to lead in EVs is there, but the question of consumer demand in the US remains. By the end of August 2017, Americans had purchased only about 60,000 EVs, and about the same number of hybrids, according to Hybridcars.com. As the New York Times notes, this amounts to 1% of the automotive market. However as Tesla has shown, it is possible to generate enthusiasm for EVs in the US. Its first mass-market offering, the Model 3 sedan, is at no loss for demand; rather, Tesla is running into difficulties getting the technology to scale.
Ultimately, regulatory pressure could override any lack of consumer demand. Officials in China, Europe as well as the US are tightening emissions standards. Some are considering measures that could eventually eliminate gasoline-powered cars. It may be time for all carmakers to get on board. German automakers Volkswagen and Daimler have pledged a huge ramp-up of EV production, while Chinese-owned Swedish carmaker Volvo has said it will convert its entire line-up to either electric or hybrids.
Apart from developments in domestic car markets, the biggest influence on the near future of electrification could come from China. Sales of EVs in China are already in the hundreds of thousands, and according to LMC Automotive, could exceed 400,000 by 2019 – two-fifths of the global market. “China is a huge part of the story in E.V.s, and it is a big factor in the decision making of the automakers,” said analyst Mike Ramsey. “China’s move toward higher emissions standards and the E.V. mandates gives the big global automakers certainty that they are going to have a significant market for these cars and they can know these investments will be worth it.”