Tesla and GM Square Off on Race for 200-Mile EV

By · June 25, 2015

Early development version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV

Early development version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV undergo testing at GM's Milford, Mich. Proving Ground. (Photos by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet)

The once feverish news cycle for stories about electric cars has mostly subsided. But that’s starting to change with an emerging high-profile race for the first relatively affordable EV with 200 miles of driving range. The competition will pit old-school General Motors (and its Chevy Bolt) against iconoclastic Tesla (and the Model 3).

We’re already seeing distinct differences between how the two companies handle communications about its progress. GM will aggressively promote the Bolt by sharing step-by-step details about its development, as it did when the Volt plug-in hybrid was being created. Meanwhile, Tesla will play it cool, leaving eager fans guessing about basic details, including a specific release date—which could shift over time.

Regardless of differing styles, the availability of an EV in the mid-$30,000 range—one that offers 200 miles on a single charge—could usher in a new bigger wave of consumers who previously hesitated to buy an electric car. This is going to be critical for jumpstarting sales, which are essentially flat in 2015 compared to last year.

General Motors last week released video and images of the Chevrolet Bolt testing at the company’s Milford Proving Grounds. More than 50 pre-production Bolts are being tested. GM engineers confirmed that the cars are already exceeding 200 miles in range. “We really wanted to convey the notion that this is running fast,” said Pam Fletcher, GM's executive chief engineer of electrified vehicles, on Wednesday. “It's happening,”

GM said production will begin October 2016, and the 2018 Chevy Volt will arrive in 2017. The company will invest approximately $245 million in tooling and equipment next year, in order to keep the project on schedule. Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors told The Verge that the Bolt and the company’s other electric cars are “designed for everyone, not just the elite,” taking a jab at Tesla, currently as the maker of EVs commonly costing around $100,000.

Early development version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV

GM is showing early versions of the Chevrolet Bolt, but Tesla has yet to reveal the design or other details for the Model 3.

Less Certainty from Tesla

Meanwhile, Tesla is leaving wiggle room for when its Model 3 electric car will actually become available. After J.B. Straubel last week revealed a slide saying the vehicle was “planned for 2018,” the company went into damage control mode to avoid any notion of a delay.

Ricardo Reyes, a company spokesman, took to Twitter to state that 2018 will be when the model is in “full production,” leaving room for a soft release—just enough to say the car was indeed introduced in 2017, even if very few units are on the road. “The Model 3 remains on schedule,” said Reyes.

In May, Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, was even less emphatic. “We are hoping to show the Model 3 in March of next year,” said Musk. He quickly added, “Don’t super-hold me to that month. That’s our aspiration.” He added that actual production would start in mid- or late-2017. "Late 2017 is probably more realistic," said Musk.

If language used respectively by GM and Tesla are taken in tandem, then eager customers should expect both cars to nominally become available sometime in 2017. Yet, a nationwide rollout of the Chevy Bolt will occur at least a few months before the Tesla Model 3 is offered in any significant numbers. That’s if the timing on the Model 3 doesn’t shift, as has occurred with the Tesla Model X SUV, which was first promised in late 2013 but now appears to be set for introduction in late 2015.

For both companies, the challenge will not only be timing—but perhaps more critically—meeting the target price in the low- to mid-$30,000 range, and with real-world range of at least 200 miles. And of course, the design, handling and performance of these vehicles will need to appeal to the mass consumer, not just EV early adopters.

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