If you heard any news about General Motors on Thursday, you may have come away thinking the automaker will sell only electric vehicles by 2035. GM didn’t say that at all, but reporting on EVs has never been a strong point for most media outlets.
GM said in its press release it “aspires” to eliminate tailpipe emissions and sell only zero-emission light-duty vehicles by 2035, in a press release headlining its plans to be fully carbon-neutral by 2040. That’s a goal, not a commitment. The New York Times got it wrong, headlining the story “GM will only sell zero-emission vehicles by 2035.” The technology site TechCrunch said GM “committed to have a fully electric fleet of vehicles by 2035.” And so on. To his credit, Reuters’ longtime auto correspondent David Shepardson nailed it from the start, saying GM “aims to” end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035.
It’s reminiscent of Volvo’s July 2017 pledge to electrify all new models, widely misreported as “Volvo will build only electric cars starting in 2019.” The term “electrified” carries a lot of nuance that often gets lost. There, it meant all new models would offer either electric or plug-in hybrid versions. That’s a long way from “all EVs.” But entreaties to reporters to read more carefully went unheeded as they were already onto the next story.
GM’s release included other implicit caveats: The aspiration applies only to light-duty vehicles, meaning passenger cars and trucks up to 6,000 pounds. It does not include “heavy-duty” versions of full-size pickup trucks, for instance, whose luxury versions have proven surprisingly popular and very profitable. Also, it may not include just electric cars but also hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, though it shows no signs of developing cars in the latter category for personal transport.
There are many reasons GM’s hopes could be realized, though multiple challenges would have to be overcome. The vehicles may be the least of them. Others include consumer explanation and education; the perennial problem of uninformed, disinterested, or downright deceptive salespeople; confusion over how EVs are charged (there are several ways); and the need for a visible, recognized DC fast-charging infrastructure.
GM’s “aspiration” is nothing more than a statement of direction. To make it real, the company has to prove it can design compelling EVs in the highest-volume segments. They likely must be better than gasoline equivalents, and cost-competitive. And it must reeducate American drivers writ large—which may be harder yet.
Many people and companies aspire to many things. I aspire to get back in shape after a year of mostly isolation, for instance. Whether it actually happens is a very different story.
Tens of billions of dollars
Still, most people see or hear or view something, assume it’s true without thinking too much or checking sources, and then react. On Thursday some of them heard GM wouldn’t make vehicles with engines anymore, and the usual clamorous alarm went off—especially among truck bros. (That’s a wholly different story.)
GM executives very much want Wall Street analysts and the public to believe the company is resetting itself to become a global leader in the EV transition of the 2020s and 2030s. That transition was kicked off in 2012 by a brash upstart California company that’s now the world’s most valuable automaker.
GM is investing tens of billions of dollars into new plants, products, and technologies to produce EVs in volume—cash it earns on highly profitable sales of gasoline and diesel full-size trucks, and SUVs of many sizes. It is building a billion-dollar joint-venture plant with LG Chem to produce battery cells in high volume for its new Ultium electric-car architecture. (The more impressive announcement will be the next two or three such plants of equal size.)
Last March, it showed a dozen different prototypes, mockups, and designs for electric vehicles it said it plans to build by 2025. The first two will be the 2022 GMC Hummer EV and the 2022 Cadillac Lyriq luxury crossover.
But the company has a long history of starting, then abandoning, electric-car initiatives. Today, it offers only a single EV, a competent five-door hatchback that very few shoppers know about, understand, or buy. The Chevrolet Bolt EV has sold roughly 20,000 copies a year since it went on sale nationwide in mid-2017.
That’s nice, but it hardly moves the dial when Teslas make up the largest share of almost 2 million EVs on U.S. roads—not to mention the vast bulk of all EV hype.
GM might respond that it will have the first of the new Ultium vehicles in dealers before the end of this year. That’s the electric Hummer EV, an audacious reboot of the notorious Hummer brand killed in GM’s 2010 bankruptcy and government-backed restructuring. The Hummer EV will be pricey and it won’t sell in high numbers. Its mission is to embed in the minds of U.S. drivers and truck owners a hard reset about what an EV can be and do. It has to show EVs can be badass, and it’ll probably succeed in that mission.
It’s the company’s entries in high-volume segments that will matter more. It has teased an electric Chevy compact crossover and Chevy Avalanche-like pickup truck, both of them in far higher-selling segments than the Hummer EV or Lyriq.
We don’t know anything about those entries yet. The crossovers in particular will have to be priced comparably to the millions of gasoline alternatives, and GM will be playing catch-up with the Volkswagen ID.4, Nissan Ariya, and entries to be unveiled this year by Hyundai and Kia, among others.
Why GM shouldn’t be trusted here
Prototypes, product concepts, and the rest are fine, but the company’s politics only fell into line with its product plan after it became clear Joe Biden would become president. Before that, GM had joined with the Trump administration in October 2019 to eviscerate California’s decades-long ability to set its own clean-air rules, arguably the single factor that has produced greater reductions in new-car fuel consumption and emissions than any other. That followed its support in 2010 and 2012 for Obama-era CAFÉ rules that reinforced California’s separate standards.
On November 23—after Trump lost, it must be noted—GM issued a short press release saying it was switching sides (again), withdrawing from the effort to kill California’s regulatory clout and urging other makers to do the same. The action was a realpolitik response to the California Air Resources Board again becoming a major player in vehicular CO2 emissions reduction rules, especially those to be written for 2026 through 2035—a task now squarely in the court of the Biden EPA.
However, GM hasn’t joined BMW, Ford, Honda, Volvo, and VW Group in the deal they cut with California in mid-2019 over revised fuel economy/emission rules. That agreement extended the Obama standards by one year, to 2026.
The challenge is that national emission rules for 2026 through 2035 and beyond do not exist. For automakers who commit hundreds of millions of dollars to new powertrains years before vehicles go into production, that void is deeply worrisome.
But times and political postures can change, and the auto industry has a decades-long history of viscerally and viciously attacking any attempt to regulate its products, business practices, and services. A quote from Axios Generate summarized the distrust:
"[H]ow can we trust GM and other automakers’ promises when they repudiated their commitment to abide by the standards they negotiated with Obama?" asks Dan Becker of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Indeed: As they say, trust but verify.
Perspective from the EV1 days
This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of GM’s EV1, the aerodynamic two-seat EV that showed what a modern electric car might be capable of. As a teenager, Chelsea Sexton was part of the Southern California EV1 support team, later one of the stars of the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? She remains an astute EV observer and advocate today.
“Announcements are good,” she said of GM’s aspirations. “It’s long past time to start adding deadlines to the inevitable, following the leadership from CARB and other agencies. But within that time, what GM does in the next five years matters far more than what happens in the last five.”
That is, to get to a zero-emission lineup in just 15 years, GM must sell vastly higher and steadily increasing numbers of EVs between now and 2035—starting this year, and ramping up in increments of hundreds of thousands every year. And it will have to explain and educate consumers about those vehicles, then market them as compellingly better than gasoline alternatives. That’s something it’s utterly failed to do over the past 10 years: Even after 10 years, virtually all EV buyers today arrive in the showroom vastly better informed than the salespeople. That can’t continue if EVs are to become universal.
Sexton also noted GM’s bigger full-size trucks aren’t “light-duty vehicles” at all. The “Heavy Duty” Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups are considered Class 2 or Class 3 commercial trucks, for which different emission rules apply. When high-luxury, high-profit 3-ton pickup trucks are used for single-person commuting, GM might decide its very profitable full-size truck lines would do just fine if they’re no longer light duty at all. Could even 1500-class full-size pickups get large enough where they became Class 2 or 3 trucks? Stay tuned.
The timing of GM’s new “aspiration” seems rather awkward, since its only EV on sale today is a five-year-old small hatchback—far from what most buyers want. The 2035 goal might have been better received if GM’s first new EVs were at least on the road and available for purchase. A year hence, with Hummer EVs in dealerships and the Lyriq launch imminent, the company could at least have pointed to them (and more EVs to come) as evidence it was walking the walk.
Goals are good, but...
But as Sexton suggests, GM’s “aspiration” has one very positive benefit: It sets a specific date on the hoped-for transition. Whether or not 100 percent of the company’s light-duty vehicles are zero-emission in 2035, GM has put a stake in the ground.
And it’s a more ambitious stake than that of the other mass-market EV pioneer, Nissan. The two companies started selling the first modern EV and plug-in hybrid 10 years ago, within days of each other. Arguably both somewhat fumbled their leads: Nissan still sells only the aged Leaf, while GM sold two generations of Volt, then killed off that technology, and now offers only a Bolt EV whose charging is already substandard and will apparently stay that way for years. Both of those things are changing soon, but they still put GM and Nissan in a position of playing catch-up.
Nissan’s commitment, as reported by NHK World, is that it will make only hybrids and EVs by 2030. That’s an advance on its current lineup, almost entirely powered by gasoline engines, but those hybrids won’t have plugs—and will still have tailpipes.
Other countries and regions are going much further than Japan. Numerous European countries will ban the sale of cars that emit CO2 in various years, and China has planned since 2017 to do the same, though it hasn’t yet specified a year. Closer to home, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently caused a similar ruckus to GM’s in September, when he directed the Air Resources Board to study ways to end the sale of new vehicles with tailpipes in the state by 2035.
That too is a concrete goal; it may or may not be met. And having goals is good. But what GM does will be much more important than just what it says—or aspires toward.
John Voelcker edited Green Car Reports for nine years, publishing more than 12,000 articles on hybrids, electric cars and other low- and zero-emission vehicles and the energy ecosystem around them. His work has appeared in print, online and radio outlets that include Wired, Popular Science, Tech Review, IEEE Spectrum and NPR's "All Things Considered."