Chevy Bolt shows GM can compete in Silicon Valley, exec says

The all-electric Chevy Bolt offers the highest rated range of any electric car that doesn't have a Tesla badge on it, at the super low starting price of $37,500.

Steve Marcus/AP/File
Journalists look over the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV after it is unveiled during a General Motors keynote address at the 2016 CES trade show in Las Vegas.

Over the last five years, much has been written about autonomous-car efforts from Apple and Google.

Could these two massively successful Silicon Valley startups overturn the established order in the global auto industry?

The answer remains to be seen, but this month brought news that both companies are restructuring their efforts.

Apple has laid off a significant number of staff in a "reset" of its automotive Project Titan (an effort it's never formally acknowledged), according to reports by company followers.

And Google has seen a longtime autonomous-vehicle researcher depart even as auto companies have launched incremental steps toward self-driving capabilities.

Now, General Motors has weighed in with a suggestion that its 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car shows it can compete effectively with Silicon Valley.

At last week's Citi Global Technology Conference in New York City, GM's executive chief engineer for electric vehicles, Pam Fletcher, discussed the role of the all-electric five-door hatchback.

Rated at 238 miles of range by the EPA last week, the 2017 Bolt EV will enter production later this year and go on sale in initial markets, very likely in California.

"Fletcher suggests the Bolt epitomizes GM’s metamorphosis," summarized trade publication Ward's Auto, "from an old-line manufacturing goliath into a Silicon Valley-like developer and builder of highly connected products and new mobility services, such as EVs, car-sharing, ride-sharing and ride-hailing."

Indeed, the all-electric Bolt offers the highest rated range of any electric car that doesn't have a Tesla badge on it, at a starting price of $37,500.

That's far lower than the luxury sedans and crossover utility vehicles now offered by Silicon Valley startup automaker Tesla Motors; they start at $70,000 and rise into six figures.

That company has received almost 400,000 deposits of $1,000 apiece from potential buyers of its upcoming $35,000 Model 3, offering 215 miles of range. But that car is still a year away—and perhaps longer.

GM clearly perceives Tesla and its sales of 100,000 or more electric cars as a serious threat.

But the Bolt EV's role goes well beyond simply beating Tesla to the punch with an affordable longer-range electric car.

Indeed, the car will be the testbed for autonomous driving technologies and likely ubiquitous in its Maven car-sharing service, and the Lyft ride-hailing program GM has invested in.

General Motors also bought Cruise Automation, whose self-driving technologies will almost surely be tested in the Bolt EV.

As Ward's notes, "The Bolt fits perfectly into those mobility services spaces, Fletcher says, because it seats five people comfortably, offers lots of cargo space for weekenders and day trippers, its footprint is relatively small and its smooth, quiet electric propulsion is ideal for urban areas."

GM frequently uses the word "urban" to describe the Bolt EV and its likely uses, with its Volt plug-in hybrid hatchback assigned the role of long-distance transport for plug-in owners.

The company said in January it has no plans to fund the installation of any DC fast-charging infrastructure that would permit the Bolt EV or any other all-electric vehicle to be used on long Interstate road trips.

The Tesla Supercharger network of fast-charging sites operating at up to 150 kilowatts, on the other hand, provides a model for such a network.

To date, however, the U.S. and German makers that have united behind the Combined Charging Standard (CCS) fast-charging protocols and hardware have shown no convincing plan for a network that would provide a similar capability.

GM appears to be choosing which parts of Silicon Valley's automotive innovation it chooses to compete with—and which it prefers to ignore.

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