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Electrified: The Power of Mobility

By Paul Eisenstein

Long, low, and sleek, Cadillac’s Celestiq might seem like a throwback to another era when luxury cars were largely hand-built to a customer’s specifications. But it’s no retro mobile. Celestiq is one of the dozens of new vehicles General Motors Co. will build – many of them in Detroit – as part of what CEO Mary Barra calls “the path to an all-electric future.”

The automotive and mobility industry is in the midst of a massive transformation from the internal combustion engine to battery power. Among Detroit automakers, GM has outlined the most aggressive shift. But Ford Motor Company is ramping up its efforts with products like the Mustang Mach-E SUV through new electric vehicle alliances with Volkswagen and Detroit startup Rivian. After a slow start, FCA US LLC is charging up its EV efforts as well.

Yet, there are plenty of skeptics who note that all battery-based vehicles captured just 5% of the U.S. market last year, pure electric models accounting for barely 1%. During a media briefing in March, GM President Mark Reuss says he expects those numbers to grow rapidly, though he acknowledges there are “a lot of pain points that prevent people from buying EVs.”

Challenges to Mass EV Adoption

The primary obstacles are limited range, high purchase costs, the lack of charging infrastructure, and long charging times.

The good news is that each issue is being addressed, in many cases, quite rapidly.

Take range. When the GM EV1 came out in 1996, it managed just 50 miles per charge. A decade ago, the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric barely topped 100. Ford will top 300 miles in versions of the Mach-E SUV, and some upcoming GM products will reach 400.

As for costs, the numbers are dropping rapidly, largely due to the price of batteries. A kilowatt-hour of batteries cost about $1,000 in 2010 and is now around $150 – a big difference considering long-range EVs have anywhere from 60 to more than 100 kWh packs onboard. GM’s target for the Ultium battery is “less than $100” per kWh and, by 2030, some experts believe that will reach $70 – with Xavier Mosquet, head of Boston Consulting Group’s automotive practice saying that target “could come even earlier.”

For buyers, he adds, that sharp tumble means they could hit “the tipping point,” where a BEV costs no more than a comparable gas vehicle by as early as 2023.

One of the biggest challenges is developing a nationwide public charging infrastructure resembling the network of over 100,000 U.S. gas stations. In reality, more than 80% of EV owners charge at home says Ted Cannis, Ford’s global director of electrification.

But to expand the appeal of plug-based vehicles, more public outlets will be needed, industry officials agree. Specially to let owners travel longer distances without worry. The good news is that there are now more than 25,000 places to charge publicly, according to federal data, with new stations opening daily.

And more and more of those use fast chargers, the latest of which can give a vehicle like the new Audi e-tron an 80% top-off in 30 minutes. GM’s Reuss says the company’s goal is to reach a 90% “state-of-charge” in just 10 minutes, not much more than it takes to fill an empty gas tank.

“The reality is there are limitations with EVs” but, going forward, there will be less and less constraints, says Daron Gifford, partner and strategy and automotive industry consulting leader at Plante Moran.

Paul Eisenstein is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Detroit Bureau.