How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car

General Motors first unveiled the Chevy Bolt as a concept car in January 2015, billing it as a vehicle that would offer 200 miles of range for just $30,000 (after a $7,500 federal tax credit). Barring any unforeseen delays, the first Bolts will roll off the production line at GM’s Orion Assembly facility in Michigan by the end of 2016. As Pam Fletcher, GM’s executive chief engineer for electric vehicles, recently put it to me with a confident grin: “Who wants to be second?”

For GM, the Bolt stands to offer a head start in a new kind of market for electric cars. But for the rest of us, there’s a broader significance to this news. It’s not just that Chevy will likely be first. It’s that a car company as lumbering and gigantic as GM, with infrastructure and manufacturing capacity on an epic scale, has gotten there first—and is there now. Tesla is nimble, innovative, and fun to watch, as companies go. But the Bolt is far more significant than any offering from Tesla ever could be. Why? Think of the old saw about how long it takes to turn an aircraft carrier around: It’s slow, and there’s not much to see at any given moment. But the thing about people who actually manage to turn one around is: They’ve got a freaking aircraft carrier.

Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, is a company lifer who has spent years shepherding the Bolt into existence. Joe Pugliese

EFORE WE GO any further, let’s pause for a moment to savor just how richly ironic it is that General Motors is about to take the lead in the electric car race. GM is, after all, a company that went bankrupt just seven years ago and survived only with the help of a federal bailout; a company whose board of directors was described by President Obama’s auto czar, Steven Rattner, as “utterly docile” in the face of impending disaster; a company that has been the butt of jokes about its lackluster, unreliable, macho cars for years; a company that churned out Hummers while Toyota gave us the Prius. And even more to the point, we’re talking about a company that has a long history with electric vehicles—the way South Park has a long history with Kenny.

That’s right. General Motors killed the electric car. More than once.

In the earliest days of the auto industry, electric cars were about as popular as their combustion-powered counterparts. Just like today, they were cleaner and quieter but more limited in range than the competition. Plus, they didn’t require a hand crank to start—an annoying feature of early combustion vehicles that occasionally resulted in broken fingers. But in 1912, Cadillac, GM’s luxury arm, came out with the first electric starter for gas-powered vehicles. Electric cars died out shortly thereafter, and in a cloud of exhaust GM surged to become the world’s largest carmaker.

Fast-forward 84 years, and for a brief interlude it looked like GM was about to take the lead in bringing electrics back. In 1996, in response to a California mandate that required automakers to have zero-emissions vehicles ready for market by 1998, GM rolled out the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle of the modern era. The funny-looking two-seater had a range of about 50 miles and was offered for lease to consumers in California and Arizona. It was impractical, dinky, and entirely doomed. It earned a small coterie of devotees but held little appeal for mainstream consumers. It used almost all unique parts, forfeiting the advantages of GM’s scale. And even as GM’s EV1 team was busy building the car, GM’s lawyers were lobbying hard, side by side with the other big automakers, to get California to back off its requirement.

Charging Through History

In the early days of the automobile, electric cars outnumbered gasoline-powered vehicles on America’s rutted, manure-strewn roads. But even as the internal combustion engine became the automobile’s dominant power source, the dream of the electric car never died. —Jordan Crucchiola

And so Lutz, a guy who would later declare that global warming is a “total crock of shit,” began lobbying GM’s leadership to make the biggest, greenest play possible. He didn’t want GM to just build a me-too hybrid to compete with Toyota. He wanted GM to build a fully electric car that almost anyone could afford to buy and that wasn’t limited by range. He wanted, in effect, to build the Bolt. But the technology wasn’t there. The car that GM actually built at Lutz’s insistence—the Chevy Volt—went on to become one of the most talked-about American vehicles in decades, for a whole host of reasons, many of them symbolic. But in-house, says Tony Posawatz, the engineer who led the team that developed the Volt, it was very clear that this was going to be a transitional car—a warm-up for GM’s electric long game.

For the Volt, GM settled on a design that was neither a Prius-style hybrid nor a pure electric car but something in between called an extended-range electric vehicle. The setup would combine a plug-in battery strong enough to serve as the car’s main power train, plus a motor with a small gas engine that would work as a generator, creating electricity to keep the vehicle going when the battery was depleted. But even that hybrid design forced GM engineers, to a remarkable extent, to become cavemen rediscovering fire.

Being inside the Bolt feels a bit like flying economy class on a brand-new, state-of-the-art plane.

Nearly everything changes when you opt for a fundamentally different power train, so GM’s greatest advantage—more than a century of experience building cars—was all but moot. Car structure was different, since they were building around a battery, not an engine. The brakes, steering, and air conditioner were powered differently. New systems, from electromagnetics for the motors to onboard and off-board charging, each came with its own learning curve. The engineers didn’t have established tests to follow. Just turning on the car required finding the perfect sequence of electrical signals from more than a dozen modules. “Oh my God, it took us forever to get the first Volt to start,” Fletcher says.

Then there was the battery. Lithium-ion chemistry was a new thing 10 years ago, and the Volt team quickly discovered how much of a pain in the neck it is. “Batteries wear out just sitting there, and they wear out when you cycle them,” says Bill Wallace, GM’s head battery engineer. “And then they wear out if you over-discharge them, or if you overcharge them.” They’re extremely sensitive to temperature. They change shape as they charge and discharge. They can also catch fire.

In short, all these problems were new to a company whose experience lay in what Lutz calls “the oily bits.” So the team set about developing the expertise it lacked. GM established a curriculum with the University of Michigan to train battery engineers. It filled a vacant building in Brownstown, Michigan, with the equipment to make battery packs. The engineers created test procedures and wrote them down as they went. They modeled different use cases for the Volt, from a woman in northern Minnesota who plugs in every night to a guy in Miami who drives 100 miles a day. They built the battery lab and brought in the blue environmental chambers, then used them to see how the battery would stand up to each situation. “We invented the idea of what the lab should be,” Fletcher says.

The Volt project was still in its infancy when the US economy tanked in 2008, sending GM into shock. The company began losing $1 billion a month and started cleaving off limbs in desperation, eliminating or selling its Pontiac, Saturn, Saab, and Hummer brands. The Volt project could easily have fallen under the ax as well—but instead it took on an outsize significance. President Obama seized on the car as one reason GM was worth a $40 billion bailout, holding it up as a sign that the bankrupt automaker could adapt. The Volt finally went on sale in December 2010, to accolades (“A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet.” —The Wall Street Journal) and jeers (“roller skates with a plug” —Fox News).

As for actual drivers, they were pretty into the Volt. The car posted stellar customer satisfaction ratings, and nearly 70 percent of its drivers were new to Chevy. The trouble was that there simply weren’t many buyers. In 2011, GM’s CEO at the time, Dan Akerson, told reporters he wanted to produce 60,000 Volts the next year. To date, Chevy has sold about 80,000—total. The Volt was a powerful symbol, but it wasn’t that significant a vehicle. Buyers soon had more innovative cars to choose from. The all-electric Nissan Leaf hit the market at around the same time as the Volt, for a similar price. In 2012, Tesla introduced its first-generation Model S, with upwards of 200 miles per charge.

But the real significance of the Volt was that it gave GM a brand-new manufacturing and engineering platform for electric vehicles, where it had had none before. “Once you make the leap, and you have a big battery, and you have electric motors,” Posawatz says, “you’ve done all the hard stuff.” And then you might just see an opportunity to gun for the finish line.

Joe Pugliese

N THE MORNING of April 2, 2014, US senator Barbara Boxer glared down from behind a microphone in a Senate hearing room in Washington, DC, demanding answers from America’s industrial problem child, General Motors. The company had just instituted its largest recall ever, after reports that faulty ignition switches on millions of cars from the 2000s had been responsible for numerous deaths and injuries. Boxer, as part of a congressional investigative committee, was castigating GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, who had been in the job a mere three weeks. “Woman to woman, I am very disappointed,” Boxer said. “The culture that you are representing here today is a culture of the status quo.”

Barra sat there, practicing the studiously neutral, calmly repentant facial nonexpression of someone getting grilled by Congress. The main theme of Barra’s testimony was that the old GM—with a docile, nodding bureaucratic culture that swept problems under the rug—had died with the company’s 2009 bankruptcy, bailout, and restructuring and that the new GM was different. But the “culture of the status quo” charge wasn’t so easy for Barra, of all people, to deflect: She’s not only a GM lifer, she’s a second-generation lifer. Her dad was a die-maker for Pontiac, and she started with the company when she was 18. (She’s 54 now.)

On the other hand, Barra had a strong hand in a lot of the most transformative stuff going on at GM. Chief case in point: Not long before she became CEO, Barra had been tapped to run development of new products, the position once held by Lutz. So by the time she was hauled before Congress in 2014 to answer for the company’s past sins, she had been overseeing the efforts of GM’s electrification gang for three years.

When I walk into Barra’s office one recent fall day, she’s standing in front of her desk wearing black pants, a black turtleneck, and an Apple Watch. (Offsetting the Steve Jobs vibe just a bit is a calendar on the wall that shows a fluffy white cat in the backseat of an Opel Corsa.) As Barra tells it, the process to develop the Bolt really took off when GM’s team was regrouping after a major setback. In 2012, GM invested in a California startup called Envia, which had developed a new battery that posted incredible performance numbers. Envia promised to deliver a 200-mile battery by fall 2013. But its technology turned out to be a flop.

Not only is GM likely to win the race, it may have the winner’s circle to itself for some time.

So in spring 2013, GM’s senior leaders and the most important figures on its electrification team gathered in the virtual reality room of the company’s Design Center to assess the situation. “We started to go, ‘OK, what can we do?’” Barra says. Was there another route to 200 miles? The EV folks hesitated but started pulling together different elements—improvements in battery life, cost savings in motors—that, combined, might represent a way forward. “We can push our way toward 200,” Fletcher recalls thinking.

The meeting turned into a full-on brainstorming session, one that ended, Barra says, with what looked like a viable path to the Bolt: “And we all went, ‘Let’s do that.’”

And so the design team set to work devising a car that would appeal to consumers well beyond the ecowarrior, early-adopter demographic. Some flashy ideas were thrown out early on: A carbon fiber body? Lightweight but too expensive at this price point. Suicide doors? Eye-catching, but they added mass without functional benefits. Capped wheels? Good for aerodynamics, but they signaled something science project–y. “It’s got to look like a serious car,” design lead Stuart Norris says. The team delivered as spacious an interior as possible, with upright glass to make the relatively small car feel more substantial and a raised driving position for a commanding view of the road.

Meanwhile, the technical folks set about making Norris’ design go 200 miles on a charge. At their most basic, batteries are made of powders, the morphology of which—grain size, distribution, how they’re bound together—is key to the power and energy of each cell. LG, General Motors’ battery provider, had cooked up a noticeably improved cell that retained energy capacity particularly well when it got hot, as lithium-ion batteries tend to. That meant Chevy could use a smaller cooling system and stick more cells in the battery pack for more range. LG also improved the battery’s conductivity, so the ions flowed faster, translating to quicker acceleration (the Bolt can go from 0 to 60 in seven seconds).

As soon as the battery was ready, engineers at GM’s Michigan proving ground hacked together a bastard car using the front half of a Chevy Sonic and the rear of a Buick Encore. They called it the Soncore and fitted it with the Bolt battery pack and motor, using the Franken-vehicle to make sure the propulsion system worked. That way, once the real Bolt body was in development, the teams responsible for the car’s chassis controls, vehicle dynamics, and suspension tuning could get right to work.

As 2014 bled into 2015, Chevy engineers built about 100 Bolt prototypes, shipping them around the US for real-world testing to verify the findings of the battery lab. The cars went to Arizona and Florida. The team drove them up the California coast and negotiated San Francisco traffic. They ran the prototypes over rough roads, looking for ways to reduce noise and vibration (extra-tricky in a car with no engine to mask odd sounds). They chose specially developed Michelin tires to minimize rolling resistance and improve range. Working fast, they made thousands of changes to the car, constantly looking for ways to improve. By the time I arrived for a test-drive, in October, the team still had more than 500 open work orders to complete.

Joe Pugliese


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