Countdown to the Chevy Bolt: The Next Major EV Milestone
The recent EV news cycle has been dominated by chatter about the fatal accident of a Tesla driver who over-relied on the company’s assisted driving system. Hopefully, focus on that disturbing and distracting incident will soon subside, so our attention can turn to what deserves more attention: the release of the first affordable mainstream 200-mile electric car. Reminder: It’s a Chevy.
Tesla is nearly two years away from selling its first relatively affordable model. Keep in mind that the first set of Model 3 units will likely be expensive upper-level variants with price tags well beyond the so-called affordable $35,000 range. In the meantime, now that we’re in the second half of 2016, you can start the six-month countdown to the truly affordable Bolt.
Shad Balch, manager of new product communications for Chevy, in an April interview with the Los Angeles Times, said, “There will be some options, but the base [Bolt] car will have most of our content and connectivity features, including active safety features. That will all be standard from the lower trim level.”
In other words, General Motors is not wavering or hedging on its commitment to its long-standing target price. GM is currently saying that the Bolt will be sold for approximately $30,000, after tax incentives, which are expected to be $7,500. (Besides, there's a strong chance that by the time the Model 3 is in full production, tax credits for Tesla vehicles will be depleted.)
Pause and Reflect
Let’s be clear about GM’s achievement: the Bolt will be the first 200-mile all-electric car offered anywhere near the net price of $30,000. The company is accomplishing this feat about two years before any of its competitors.
That’s remarkable, but what’s mind-boggling is that it only took six years between the time the company first offered the Volt—a plug-in hybrid that babied its 16 kilowatt-hour pack by only using half its capacity—and the introduction of the Bolt, a similarly priced vehicle that utilizes nearly all of a pack that carries a whopping 60 kilowatt-hours of energy.
Yes, there have been improvements in battery chemistry and battery management systems, as well as reductions in cost. But arguably the true breakthrough—gained by GM selling the Volt over two generations—is the human understanding of how people use plug-in cars.
By producing the Volt and studying how people drive and charge, GM confirmed that most drivers only travel about 40 miles on a single day; that they are quite comfortable with charging at home every day; and that what they seek is the comfort of knowing that there’s an abundant surplus of range always left in the car. That might seem obvious to any EV driver, but the auto industry’s products are only beginning to reflect that understanding in 2016.
“Our studies show that 200 miles is the breakthrough point,” Larry Nitz, director of propulsion systems at GM, told me earlier this year. “Our technology has evolved where we can do cars like this that are cost-effective. We did it.”
Nitz’s insight is that an EV with a 200-mile range will very rarely get used to its capacity. If a driver plugs in every day and drives a typical 40-mile commute, the battery will automatically get babied—just through normal driving patterns. Therefore, GM engineers are confident about allowing the vast majority of the Bolt’s 60-kWh capacity to get used because it won’t happen very often. The 200 miles of capacity is available on an as-needed basis, while providing driver confidence all the time.
“If you have a car with 80 or 90 miles of range, your motivation is to find the next charging place,” Nitz said. “Can I plug in at work? Can I plug in at the mall? Where can I plug in? With the Bolt, you forget all of that.” Moreover, he said drivers will forget about range issues even on the coldest days of the year in Detroit, when battery range can be cut in half by frigid conditions.
“It’s a normal car,” Nitz said.
Bingo. That’s the achievement we’re counting down to see become real: a pure battery-electric EV, at $30,000, being thought of as a normal car. When the first Bolt customer takes the keys, that auto industry first will be owned by General Motors and can never be taken away from the company.
Perhaps that’s why the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV this week was placed on the list of 43 models under consideration for the 2017 North American Car and Truck of the Year award. And that’s why long-time EV-denying industry analysts are now saying the Bolt could far exceed sales projections.
Will the car be a smash success? That’s unpredictable. Only time will tell if the overall driving experience of the compact EV is as powerful as the key 200-mile milestone. Its popularity will depend on currently unanswered questions like these:
- The Bolt is promised to offer the interior room of a mid-size car in the format of a compact, but will it actually feel roomy?
- GM says the performance specs—200 horsepower, 266 pound-feet of torque, zero-to-60 mph performance under seven seconds—will make the Bolt truly fun to drive, but will it feel spirited behind the wheel?
- The combination of Drive and Low modes, and a paddle for “regen on demand,” will mean EV aficionados can enjoy single-pedal driving, but will that experience survive final technical tweaks?
Those finer points aside, the introduction of the first plug-in cars—the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF—in 2010 was an undeniable breakthrough. Six years later, we’re poised for another one. Get ready.
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