Traditionally, automotive design and development cycles can take years to transition from concept to production vehicle, especially if the vehicle includes a lot of new, ground-breaking technology or requires a brand-new design ethos which has not been attempted before. With a little determination, it’s possible but rare to see a two-year gap between concept and production vehicles, but even Tesla — which by all accounts completely ignores auto industry norms — took three years to bring its Model X to market rather than the super-quick year and a half it initially promised.
Tesla has always tried to act differently to the rest of the industry, priding itself on doing things far quicker and responding to the market far quicker than the heavyweights of Detroit. But when it enters into production next year, the Chevrolet Bolt EV will represent a new type of vehicular development from General Motors, as well as a determination to show it too has a vested interest in getting the world into electric cars.
It is, to use a metaphor, pulling out all of the proverbial stops to market the Bolt EV “the right way,” bringing it to market as soon as it possibly can. As a former organist who knows exactly what that term can mean in real life, you should know this author isn’t using the term lightly.
Talking to Autobloggreen editor Sebastian Blanco just over a month ago at the 2015 annual AltCar Expo in Santa Monica, California, Shad Balch — whose job focus is on Environment & Energy Policy and Communications at General Motors — said Chevrolet is keen to make sure the Bolt EV hits the market on time and is an instant success.
As Blanco notes, General Motors isn’t helping itself all that much at the moment, with a current advert for its 2016 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car taking aim at all-electric cars, specifically the Nissan LEAF. Ignore that fact however, and it’s clear that at least some of GM’s marketing team are all about the Bolt EV.
“The most encouraging part for us out here, being in the market…to be able to explain that we are committed to marketing this car the right way,” he said. “We’re trying to make that known as much as possible because that is the number one criticism that we hear. That’s why events like these are so important, because we can’t wrap up into a 30-second spot what these cars are capable of.”
“I can’t even explain it to you in 10 minutes what it’s like,” he continued. “But the thing is, driving an EV is, in every proof point, better than a gas-powered car, except for charging.”
For those with a long memory, that’s a very different and very welcome attitude from the GM which crushed the EV1.
Some, for whom that memory is still a bitter one, will treat GM’s new attitude towards electric cars with caution and mistrust until the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt is selling in meaningful numbers across the U.S. Some may even worry that the Bolt EV will, like the limited-production but very competent Chevrolet Spark EV it replaces, be nothing more than a compliance car, available in limited numbers in only key U.S. states where automakers must offer some form of zero emission vehicle in order to avoid hefty fines.
But, says Balach, that’s not GM’s intention: the Chevrolet Bolt EV is a car it is pushing to launch in all 50 states simultaneously next fall, with the kind of production volume which will help it not only meet efficiency and emissions standards but which also helps bring the cost of manufacturing down thanks to economies of scale.
“GM leadership has essentially fast-tracked this car into production,” he said. “It’s very safe to assume that this car is going to be here sooner rather than later. We’ve also committed that it’s going to be a 50-state vehicle at launch. That’s to show our commitment to the technology. Our hope is that it becomes a high-volume-selling car, and that it’s not just for the coasts, it’s not just for a certain income level, but it’s a long-range EV that anybody can get themselves into.”
When it comes to marketing, the “meant-for-everyone” message is going to be GM’s strongest ally. With a 200-mile range and a price tag GM hopes will be somewhere around $30,000 after incentives, the Chevrolet Bolt EV won’t necessarily be a whole lot cheaper than the highly-anticipated Tesla Model 3. That car, due some time in 2017 as a 2018 model-year car, will offer Tesla’s legendary Supercharger capabilities and at least 200+ miles of range per charge. It will likely cost $35,000.
So far however, Tesla has been a premium brand, a car which has associations with the coastal markets, wealthy software executives and movie stars. Chevrolet meanwhile, has its long history as a brand known for providing reliable workhorses to the everyday man (or woman) on the street. If it can pitch the Chevrolet Bolt EV as something everyone can drive, not just the tech-savvy upper middle-class, GM’s car for everyone message may just help it win against Tesla’s luxury car feel.
“[This is] a good alternative to the luxury long-range EVs that are available now,” Balch said. “It’s something that people can see themselves actually affording to get into. That’s the message from this car.”
But while GM might be eager to start afresh with the Chevrolet Bolt EV, using new manufacturing techniques, unprecedented cooperation with its suppliers and even a fresh approach to electric vehicle marketing, there’s one really big thing it needs to tackle before it can even hope of competing against the Tesla Model 3 or upcoming next-generation, long-range Nissan LEAF in the marketplace: its dealers.
Where it is allowed to do so, Tesla owns and operates its own stores without the troubles of going through a franchised dealership, and its Tesla referral program ensures that drivers are as actively engaged in selling its product as Tesla’s own staff are. Nissan meanwhile, has been working exhaustively for five years straight to engage and inform its dealerships across the world about electric vehicles and the benefits of owning a Nissan LEAF. And that’s before you take into account the work put in by Tesla and Nissan to grow public charging infrastructure so that their respective customers can make trips knowing there’s a reliable charging infrastructure available for them to use.
In order to truly get its Bolt EV sold in all 50 states at high-enough volumes, GM will have to put in a similar amount of work, especially in its pickup-loving heartlands. That’s because unlike the Chevrolet Volt — which was something of a conquest vehicle for GM, bringing new buyers to the brand — the Chevrolet Bolt EV will need to be purchased for new and existing Chevrolet customers alike.
In order for that to happen, GM will need to change the minds of its dealerships about plug-in cars as well as the minds of its seasoned customers.
And that is no small feat. Let’s hope that metaphorical organ has plenty of ranks of pipes to pull on in order to spread the word.
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