General Motors pioneered the decarbonization of transportation in 1996. California’s state mandate required that GM develop a unique compact vehicle, the EV1. It was powered by 26 12-volt lead-acid battery packs. But GM soon reversed course, moving from EV booster to principle litigant in a 2001 case suing California over the state’s efforts to promote zero-emission vehicles, and scrapping the EV1 project in 2003.
Following Tesla’s rise to EV dominance, and a consensus among governments that the vehicle industry could not keep pumping out gas-powered cars and trucks indefinitely, GM has joined a scramble for pole position in the new industry. Early last year, GM announced the launch of a new electric Hummer “supertruck,” and has since committed $27 billion to EV development as part of what it has termed an “aspiration” to sell only electric vehicles by 2035. At the 2022 CES conference on Jan. 5, the auto giant showed its next hand in its electric gamble—a new electric version of the company’s top-selling Silverado pickup, aimed at converting longtime truck owners to a battery vehicle age.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for GM. At this point, it’s apparent that any automaker that fails to convert to battery offerings might find itself trapped with shrinking profits in the next decade or two. While losing ground to makers of EV sedans and sports cars isn’t much to the big-three American automakers—GM, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler)—which all make their real money in trucks and SUVs, an assault on their core pickup business, and its fat profit margins, would hit them where it hurts. “They’re not joking around when it comes to trucks,” says Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Edmunds, a car buying guide. “That’s the majority of their business right there.”
Although few mass-market pickups are available, competition is increasing. Ford, Stellantis and Ram have both unveiled electric F-150 pickups in May. And newer entrants are making inroads as well: Tesla has been hyping its “Cybertruck” for months, and Rivian, flush with IPO cash, aims to disrupt the established order of big three-dominated pickup sales.
GM is currently late in the game. At the earliest, the electric Silverado will be available for purchase in the second half of 2023—Ford expects to start shipping electric F-150s in spring of this year.
Silverado EV looks quite strong in comparison to the rest. GM claims the Silverado EV has a range of 400 miles and that it offers a basic, business-oriented vehicle for commercial buyers starting at $40,000. GM claims that a premium variant, with more features for the consumers, will retail at a suggested selling price of $100,000. Lower-priced consumer versions will follow as production ramps up. The top-of-the-line version has a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds, similar to Ford’s F-150 Lightning EV, and a hefty 664 horsepower, along with four-wheel steering for executing tight corners at low speed and an optional multi-hinge tailgate that locks into different configurations to expand capacity or provide a step up to the truck bed. The electric Silverado doubles as an appliance or power tool generator, similar to the F-150 Lightning.
According to Motor Intelligence, 20% of new American auto sales will be made in 2020 by gas-guzzling pickups. If the county’s pickup-truck owners transitioned to electric vehicles en masse, it could have a sizable climate impact. Buyers must be willing to purchase these vehicles. Owners will save a lot of money by switching to electric pickups. There won’t be any more trips to the shop and no need to fill up. And carmakers like Ford and GM have bundled on extra features—like those power-tool charge ports—to sweeten the deal. However, some analysts don’t believe that the popularity of electric pickups in coastal areas will make them popular. One reason is that states with high pickup driver numbers overlap significantly with those with poor charging infrastructure.
Despite the heady words from executives at industry conferences, and sparkly features on the new EV pickup offerings, it’s hard not to feel disappointed about what could have been. If automakers such as GM had not resisted EV requirements for so many years, American society would likely have begun the transition from gasoline cars much sooner. This would have saved valuable time and money in fighting climate change. In this sense, it is clear that the current state in the EV market speaks volumes about businesses’ responses to social pressure. When they want to, giant companies are capable of dramatic pivots and transformative new technologies—but they only tend to do so when their profits are on the line.