Al Oppenheiser spent 14 years as chief engineer for two generations of reborn Chevrolet Camaros. In April 2019, just 19 months ago, he was called into the executive suite and offered the chief engineer role for the new 2022 GMC Hummer EV electric truck, in part due to his performance-car background. His mission was to develop a new, all-electric Hummer that would make General Motors’ core truck buyers sit up, pay attention, and start to ask their dealers about EVs, all within just 2.5 years.
Oppenheiser and his team didn’t have much time. But the task was a critical one for General Motors’ planned electric future.
Last night, the truck finally broke cover in a series of slick videos shown during the World Series, NBC’s The Voice and on YouTube. It revives the notorious Hummer name as a model within the GMC luxury-truck brand—but for the 2020s, it’s all-electric, zero-emission, and all but silent. Its splashy debut and accelerated development timeline underscore what a huge deal it is.
After all, it’s one of a half-dozen electric trucks promised by different makers, of varying degrees of reality. And it’s equally audacious, though less dystopian, than the Tesla Cybertruck revealed in November 2019 after several years of promises by the growing Silicon Valley EV maker.
But while the new Hummer was developed at a breakneck pace, it promises more than just capabilities we’ve never seen before in any truck. It aims to make you think EVs can be, for lack of a better term, as badass as the brashest of GM’s top-selling pickups.
Big EV plans. Again.
The Hummer EV is the first of a dozen or so GM electric vehicles planned to go on sale by 2025. The all-electric Cadillac Lyriq was unveiled in August; yesterday we learned the Lyriq will be built in Spring Hill, Tennessee, along with China, though not for two years. The Hummer EV will be made at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, now called “Factory Zero.”
It bears noting that GM’s discussions with hot EV-truck startup Rivian had fallen apart the same month Oppenheiser was given this assignment. The split reportedly occurred over Rivian’s desire to build electric vehicles for other makers. Ford swept in and joined Amazon as a Rivian investor, to much market acclaim. One could suppose GM decided it would build its own damn EV truck, thank you very much, and tapped Oppenheiser to deliver it on the aggressive schedule. (GM later signed a deal with hydrogen/EV truck startup Nikola; its closing has been delayed, and some analysts suggest it may founder amid scathing allegations made against the company and its founder.)
With Rivian out of the picture, Oppenheiser, longtime battery guru Tim Grewe, and a handful of carefully picked team members had to engineer a Hummer EV and get it into production by late 2021. The vehicle would use a battery architecture still being developed, to be powered by cells fabricated at a plant also being built from the ground up. To say it was new ground for GM, and a daunting task, may be the understatement of 2020.
But all three members of the Detroit 2.5 know trucks intimately.
In some ways, designing a full-size truck sold only in North America is a more comfortable place for Detroit than passenger cars that have to compete with the world’s best. Not to mention, full-size pickups and SUVs provide the bulk of all three companies’ actual profits. That’s especially been true during the pandemic, where weak car sales early on were somewhat offset by strong truck demand. For better or worse, America is more truck country than it’s ever been.
Detroit’s engineers include thousands of 4x4 owners and off-roaders, too. So Oppenheiser could draw on a deep bench to deliver on the three basic elements of his assigned mission.
First, they had to make GM’s first electric truck “one that really popped” in a way no compact hatchback ever would. Second, they were ordered to ensure its performance and off-road capabilities would truly “excite the naysayers,” of whom there were likely to be many.
Finally, they were tasked with building a halo vehicle for GM’s electrification strategy to underscore the idea GM had made a fresh start, and that the public should pay attention to its plans for a dozen future electric vehicles.
Startup mentality, adapting new tech
By now it’s a trope: Every new project team says it has to “act like a startup.” The Hummer team’s mottos included “Fail fast!” and they instituted a rule that decisions had to be made within 24 hours. Those may be standard at Silicon Valley startups, but they’re less common in a huge, global industrial company where products take three to five years to develop, and product cycles last five to seven years.
During an hour-long interview, Oppenheiser recalled starting from the premise that a truly powerful Hummer EV with jaw-dropping capabilities would need a huge battery pack. GM hasn’t released battery specifications, but we’d expect the pack is more than 100 kilowatt-hours, or larger than any current Tesla pack. But for off-road vehicles, there are limits to the dimensions of a flat battery in a four-wheeled object that still allows precise maneuverability and offers real rock-climbing chops.
Their solution was to start from the battery pack designed for the Cadillac Lyriq—but to use two of them, initially stacking one atop the other. The production battery is integrated into a single pack, contained within a “steel sandwich” structure that was in development by GM’s Advanced Technologies Group. The Hummer team visited, quickly deciding, “Hey, we can use that!” Their final battery consists of two layers of 12 cell modules in one double-height box under the cabin floor.
GM’s dilemma: EVs aren’t badass
There’s little question General Motors knows how to engineer decent electric cars. It proved that with the EV1 25 years ago, the Volt plug-in hybrid in 2011, and the Bolt EV electric hatchback in 2017. All were solid cars, all were beloved by most of their drivers.
Yet none set the world on fire or drew a fan base anything like Tesla’s.
The problem is that the Volt and the Bolt EV just weren’t very compelling cars. After an initial burst of good press, neither captured the imagination and desires of a large mass of U.S. buyers. GM is betting a “Supertruck” will change that. It hopes its own massive pickup truck sales, bolstered by aggressive grilles and a macho image, can change the conversation around EVs. It’s the first GM electric car ever whose development team calls it “a beast”—frequently.
Put simply, the GMC Hummer EV is the first electric vehicle that does things no gasoline vehicle can do, or does them better—while being audacious just by existing. No one has ever called the 238-mile Chevrolet Bolt EV compact hatchback a beast. You may hear adjectives like sensible, pleasant, capable, and dutiful. But it’s never, ever been badass. It's also hard to imagine the Volt or the Bolt EV being launched with the backing of Led Zeppelin's driving "Immigrant Song." It echoes Cadillac’s famous “Break Through” ad on the 2003 Super Bowl, meant to convey that the brand with the newly redesigned laurel-wreath logo had changed forever.
Over the last 10 years, EVs have lured buyers who want either the latest, coolest, most advanced tech on wheels, or a way to save the planet. But neither of those drives mass-market buyers, who generally want specific vehicle types (today, compact crossovers) with a bit of brand cachet. Chevy and GMC are respected brands for trucks, but no longer for cars. And while the Hummer EV won't be a mass-seller, it has other value I'll touch on in a bit.
Given our cheap gasoline, buyers today increasingly want utility vehicles and trucks—and we’re in a moment where simply being a capable truck doesn’t get the buzz. Alluring truck brands these days also have to be able to rock-climb, ford rivers, traverse the Rubicon Trail, and tear up a sand dune or two. Witness the highly publicized launch of a trio of new Ford Bronco models, all bristling with off-road cred—even if many will never go further off-road than a muddy sports field.
And if your goal is to conquer nature—drive right through it, dominate it, perhaps even plunder it—what better brand to do that than Hummer? It’s silent, so nature will never hear it coming.
Badass 101, Truck Division
The GMC Hummer EV is deliberately loaded with the kinds of wild features that truck buyers love, even if they can’t get them in the trucks they can actually afford. Take the “Extract” mode that raises the suspension fully 6 inches above Terrain mode, to get drivers out of tough situations. It makes for great video as the giant vehicle levers itself up and right off a rock. (No, GMC will not allow you to run the truck on-road with a fully extended suspension. We asked.)
Or take the “Watts To Freedom” feature, essentially electric overboost for maximum acceleration. To invoke it, drivers have to go through extra commands—at which point the Hummer reads, “ARMED” on the screen as the vehicle lowers itself to its minimal ground clearance. Plus, that "WTF" acronym? Not subtle at all.
Occupants get full audio and video lead-in, with spaceship graphics showing lights receding to infinity, and vibrations through the driver’s seat. This helps distract them from the time it takes the Hummer to condition its pack to deliver peak power—at minimum, several seconds.
Then, the Hummer (likely weighing three tons or close) will rocket from 0 to 60 mph in just 3 seconds. And Oppenheiser stresses it will do that many times in a row—unlike certain unnamed makers whose power delivery starts to wane after just a few speed runs.
There’s more, from removable glass “Infinity Roof” panels that slot neatly into the front trunk to wheel wells large enough for aftermarket 37” tires. Eighteen cameras offer vision from every angle, including underneath the truck. Could the Ultimate Brodozer be electric?
Is GM serious?
Despite the hoopla and buzz around the Hummer EV, numerous reasons for skepticism remain about GM’s commitment to electric vehicles among advocates, analysts, and EV drivers. One is that the bulk of GM’s EV effort is likely focused on China, not North America. Of the dozen future electric models shown in March at GM’s EV Day, the Hummer EV is one of a handful that is only really saleable in North America. The Buick and Cadillac SUVs and sedans are primarily for China. There's a reason for this. The world's biggest car market is tightening its emissions rules and pushing the EV shift harder than any other.
Carmakers in China have no choice about whether to build EVs, because its government will force electric vehicles to be the bulk of new sales. Last year, Chinese drivers bought more electric cars than the entire rest of the world added together. North America will be a whole lot harder.
Still, this won’t be the only Hummer in the lineup. We’ve now seen the Sport-Utility Truck, which will soon be followed by a sibling with a more conventional tall, square SUV body—echoing the pair of models in both the old military H1 and the GM-truck-derived H2 from 15 years ago.
But GM sees major reductions in cost and complexity in an all-electric future. Even after leaving Europe, it now builds more than 100 different powertrains. The company said in March it expects to cut that to just 19 different configurations of EV battery pack and motor(s)—globally.
Its Ultium batteries are designed for adaptability. China and North America use different shapes of cells; it can accommodate either. The modules that make up the “DNA of Ultium,” in battery chief Grewe’s words, can be arranged lengthwise or across the vehicle, and stacked one atop the other if needed. Their wireless battery-management system eliminates 90 percent of the wiring inside a typical battery pack.
GM President Mark Reuss confidently told reporters this year GM would make money on every Ultium electric vehicle it sells. For the Hummer, with base prices of $80,000 to $113,000, it should. Neither the Volt nor the Bolt EV sold more than 30,000 units a year, meaning both likely lost money. If GM can really make money on EVs, that will change the entire equation.
But the GMC Hummer EV tells us GM may have finally gotten religion in another, more important way. It’s now making EVs that are not just well-engineered, but cool and desirable to buyers as vehicles—regardless of the electric part. That’s exactly what Tesla did.
As we wrote in March, after the company’s “EV Day” presentation: “GM seems to be positioning itself to be in 2022 where Tesla was around 2014: selling EV technology in low-volume, higher-priced vehicles.”
The Hummer EV launched last night will never be a high-volume vehicle. Even as the average U.S. transaction price for a new full-size truck approaches $50,000, per September data from Edmunds, the GMC Hummer lineup will come at roughly twice that. And, remember, in its very best year (2007), the three models combined of GM’s old Hummer brand sold only 72,000 units. Still, it served as a halo vehicle for GM trucks; owners and insiders can still be heard reminiscing fondly about its sheer effrontery.
But for the company to retain a position of global influence, its future electric crossovers will have to sell in high volumes. So you can expect GM to launch quite a few more EV models over the next five years. It will no doubt attempt to build similar appeal into the higher-volume, more conventional electric crossover utilities that have to follow. GM must profitably sell tens and then hundreds of thousands of EV crossovers at prices that compete with the Nissan Ariya, Tesla Model Y, Volkswagen ID.4, and more coming by 2025.
Will they be as badass as the Hummer EV? Good question.
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."