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U.S. faces a long road to an electrified vehicle future

The announcement from General Motors that it aims for zero tailpipe emissions from its passenger cars by 2035 was met with great fanfare. Will the U.S. get there?

Chevrolet plans to add the Bolt EUV for the 2022 model year. If General Motors' recent announcement holds, the Bolt will have plenty of electrified company by 2035.
Chevrolet plans to add the Bolt EUV for the 2022 model year. If General Motors' recent announcement holds, the Bolt will have plenty of electrified company by 2035.Read moreChevrolet

General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s recent announcement that the world’s fourth-largest automaker wants to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035 was met with excitement across the media.

Except by Mr. Driver’s Seat.

Oh, I love driving electric cars — the endless torque, the cheap fuel costs, the quiet movement. And I love the idea of electric cars — anyone who’s jogged past a freshly fired-up vehicle knows reduced fossil tailpipe emissions would be a breath of fresh air.

But GM is not the first — Tesla started there, of course, and Volvo is well on its way. Now Jaguar announced Monday that it aims to make its lineup purely electric by 2025, and Ford on Wednesday said it would invest $1 billion to convert a plant in Germany into an electric-vehicle factory.

But it’s a long road, with infrastructure, supply chain, range, and consumer issues.

A history of big dreams

Some previous announcements make it hard to put a lot of stock into this one. Consider these automotive announcement highlights:

  1. Ford will build a car without a steering wheel by 2021. (August 2016)

  2. General Motors aims to run a fleet of self-driving taxis by 2019. (November 2017)

  3. And not to pick on Ford, but Bill Ford in 2005 predicted a quarter-million hybrids by 2010, and the number was about one-eighth of that.

The reminder about GM’s self-driving taxi fleet came from an unlikely source — the executive director of insights from, one of the country’s premier automotive industry followers.

Jessica Caldwell characterized the “emissions-free by 2035” idea as more of a goal. “I think these announcements are more indications of the direction they’re moving,” she said.

Caldwell is not down on electric vehicles. Edmunds just released a report saying the industry is poised to have its strongest sales of fully electric vehicles ever in 2021, predicting that the segment will make up 2.5% of sales, up from 2020′s 1.9%.

And going electric is not nearly as complicated as going driverless. But there are a few dramatic downsides, not least of which are range and recharging.

Caldwell says the industry average range on EVs was 239 miles for 2020, and she expects that will be 270 this year. That’s a far cry from the days when the Nissan Leaf could get you 85 miles or so, but it’s still less than a tank of gas stretches. And it doesn’t account for the juice-sucking nature of cold weather.

The ideal solution?

One would think hybrids would be the perfect answer in the interim. They’ve helped make some converts along the way — many of them unlikely.

For instance, Kevin Mazzucola, the executive director of the Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, the region’s new-car dealers’ group that puts on the annual Philadelphia Auto Show. He admits to not being sold on the technology for a long while, especially because of discouraging sales trends for the vehicles.

But Mazzucola sees the technology becoming viable in the marketplace, thanks to better batteries, better range, and a better price point. So when it came time to replace his aging ride, Mazzucola decided to try a plug-in hybrid SUV, and found it appealing. He thinks the future of electric will come far sooner than GM’s 2035 goal.

“It’s not a gimmick and it’s not PR,” Mazzucola said. “There’s going to be a hundred different products in the marketplace by 2025.”

Still, it’s tough being a consumer trying to find a time-tested hybrid. Caldwell says hybrid models come and go as sales have been disappointing. It’s not hard to think the same thing won’t happen while EV sales remain less than stellar.

More charging options

So EV buyers have a new worry: riding without a reassuring engine as a fallback. But GM has that worked out.

The automaker is partnering with EVGo on adding 2,700 charging stalls in the country. Because of the stalls’ designs, this has the chance of providing close to 5,000 recharges at once, depending on the charging capacity of the vehicles, according to Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer at EVGo.

Levy and Geoff Bristow, the manager of EV initiatives in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Energy Programs Office, agreed in separate interviews that beyond expanding charging capacity and adding incentives, consumers really need to be educated about EVs.

“The first barrier is getting butts into seats,” Levy said.

So to that end, EVGo is partnering with Lyft and Uber to add rideshares. And Pennsylvania is aiming to replace 25% of its fleet of light-duty vehicles with electrics by 2025, Bristow said.

“We are trying to lead by example,” Bristow said.

While profit-aspirational companies such as EVGo — it’s not making money yet, hence all the partnerships — are aiming for strong markets for their chargers, Bristow’s office is helping fill in the gaps in rural areas to connect larger markets, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

While the agency does not fund home chargers, it does provide funding to government offices, businesses, and non-profit organizations to support installation of chargers in public spaces, workplaces, and multi-unit residential buildings. Some people want to see chargers be as common as gasoline pumps, Bristow said, but there really needs to be a switch in the mindset.

“Fueling by and large occurs at home or at the workplace,” he said.

What we really need

Making money is the final piece in the puzzle. With companies heading into an electric future, mass producing more electric vehicle components and reaching critical mass on charging options should help bring the prices for both down, and the profit up.

I confess that I’m more optimistic on GM’s idea having heard from these other sources than I was at the time of the announcement.

But for real consumer comfort, we need a battery range of, say, upward of 500 miles. That gives us plenty of worry-free long-trip, any-weather driving. Then we need a fast charger at Point B, as well, while we stay overnight and recharge.

Because the EV-experienced such as myself know the cars do kind of sell themselves.

“I often joke that there are very few EV recidivists because once you get behind the wheel of an EV, you see it’s a smoother drive, it’s a quieter drive, the acceleration and the torque is so much better, you’re blown away, and you want to keep doing it,” Levy said.

We’re not there yet, but the stars appear to be aligning.

Correction: An earlier version of this column wrongly stated that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection provides funding to people to install chargers at their homes. It provides funding only to government offices, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to support installation of chargers in public spaces, workplaces, and multiunit residential buildings.