Is GM About to Get Serious About Electric Cars?

CC BY-SA 2.0. Tracie Hall

It's promising 20 new all-electric vehicles by 2023, and a significant ramp up of Bolt production.

An interesting thing happened the other day: My family had dinner with friends, and two of the other three families said they were seriously considering an electric or plug-in hybrid car. It confirmed something I've been thinking about for a while: it's increasingly clear to me that there is significant, pent-up demand for plug-in vehicles. It's just that normal people have slightly less tolerance for really silly road trips than yours truly.

The Chevy Bolt, however, could be a potential contender for many families. With a range of 238 miles before you need to charge up, it's practical for most journeys that any of us take on any given day. True, a truly long distance road trip would still involve some pretty long stops to charge, but my friend Eric from green t-shirt maker TS Designs (who has now installed a public charging station at his factory) takes his on business trips across North Carolina and beyond, and seems very happy with his choice.

The only trouble has been that many would-be buyers—especially in Canada—have a hard time getting their hands on one.

Now, with the release of GM's 2017 sustainability report, the company is committing to ramping up production of the Bolt—although I can't for the life of me find an actual number for how many cars that ramp up will entail. Additionally, GM is also committing to 20 more all-electric cars globally by 2023, as well as an on-going effort to reduce the fuel consumption of its traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles. It's all part of what GM says is its "zero emissions, zero crashes, zero congestion" vision for the future.

Of course, the cynics among us would say this is all well and good—but if it's serious, why the heck is GM working with other automakers to undermine fuel efficiency standards? The company has this to say:

Our global commitment to improving fuel economy, reducing emissions, and an all-electric, zero-emissions future is unwavering, and regardless of any modifications to existing emissions standards as is currently under review in the United States. In the U.S., we support modernizing the standards and creating one national program that includes California. We intend to continue working with the California Air Resources Board, Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on standards to improve fuel economy and our environment.

Whether you take them on their word or not will depend on your disposition. I'm personally of the mind that any company that's in the business of transportation ought to be pushing as hard as possible for rapid, across-the-board decarbonization that goes well beyond even what current emissions standards advocate for. That said, GM does have one interesting point about the current regulations; they were formulated before autonomous vehicles and shared ownership were really becoming such a credible factor in the marketplace. If we do, genuinely, want to move beyond one vehicle, one owner, then it would make sense for regulations to consider these new technologies and business models in how they distribute incentives and penalties for missing the mark.

Either way, GM's new report is one more data point that suggests that no serious car maker can afford to ignore the transition beyond fossil fuels and toward zero emission mobility. Whether they act fast enough to remain a player in this rapidly changing landscape will—I suspect—depend more on corporate will and innovation, than it will on any outside forces like fuel economy standards.