Competition makes things progress faster, and results in better and cheaper products, so it's great to see GM getting more gung-ho about going head-to-head with EV newcomer Tesla Motors. GM's CEO, Dan Akerson, seems to want to attack Tesla both at the high-end with the Cadillac ELR, which comes out around early 2014, and at the lower end eventually with and affordable electric vehicle selling for around $30k and a 200-mile range (could be years out, though).
This sounds great, but unfortunately, Akerson seems to be doing all this a bit reluctantly. The ELR sounds like it won't be produced in large numbers, and many quotes from the interview give the impression that he's not so excited about EVs. Maybe that's because the company has billions invested in traditional vehicles, along with all the manufacturing plants and suppliers that go with it, and that creates a lot of inertia. I truly hope that they are investing heavily in making EVs at scale and that this isn't just one more R&D side project that will result in a niche vehicle rather than a true mass-market blockbuster.
Otherwise, this creates the possibility of GM being disrupted in the way described by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma: "Christensen suggests that successful companies can put too much emphasis on customers' current needs, and fail to adopt new technology or business models that will meet customers' unstated or future needs; he argues that such companies will eventually fall behind". Or in the words of Wayne Gretzky, you need to skate to where the puck will be, not where it has been.
This is what happened to Microsoft, Nokia and Blackberry (formerly RIM). They dominated the phone market, then the iPhone came out. What was the reaction of Microsoft's CEO when he saw the iPhone? He laughed it off. So expensive! Doesn't do everything people want it to! It'll never sell! But then the iPhone got better with each iteration until it ate the market (along with Android, which has design-philosphy roots very much based on Apple's iOS).
This is the danger for old school automakers. They first looked at the Tesla Roadster and laughed ("A $100k two-seater? They'll make a few hundreds and go bankrupt.. pfff"), then they don't take the Model S seriously ("Still very expensive and they'll only make a few tens of thousands a year... We make millions of vehicles!"), and at some point there will be an affordable EV with a good range that is produced in large quantities, having access to Supercharger Stations all around the country, and some automakers will realize that maybe they should've started working on their own mass-market EVs and fast-charger networks a long time ago because now they're years behind. And there's the added danger that they could try to go where Tesla has been (upmarket) instead of focusing on where it'll go (downmarket).
I'm not saying that's what will happen to GM. The Chevy Volt is quite a good PHEV, the new Spark EV will be their first 100% EV since the EV1 (a step in the right direction), the Cadillac ELR looks quite promising, and they say they are working on an EV that is affordable and has 200 miles of range (seems pure R&D at this point, though)...
But, this could all change quickly. If in a few years Tesla comes out with an electric car around $30k that looks and drive like a mini Model S, has access to a nationwide network of free fast-chargers, and they make hundreds of thousands of them... Suddenly the competitive market is very different and vehicles like the Spark EV and Nissan LEAF won't cut it.