Say goodnight, Tesla. You’re about to be strangled with a bowtie…a Bolt out of the blue. Sexy Tesla, losing money on every trendy $70,000 electric car it produces, and promising that its still-in-development battery electric Model 3 will come in at $35,000 and offer a range of 200 miles on a charge, is about to be passed, with an accelerating wave, by a Chevy.
While some 300,000 folks have ponied up $1,000 each to reserve the chance to buy a Tesla Model 3, a concept car that doesn’t really exist yet, GM has rolled out real pre-production Bolt vehicles for technology and automotive journalists to drive. The car will deliver 238 miles of range, at a price of less than $30,000 (after federal tax credits), and be on the market a year before the car that Tesla hopes will turn its bottom line from red to black.
Reviewers who drove the Bolt were blown away. Farhad Manjoo, the New York Times’ excellent technology reporter, wrote, “A first affordable long-range electric car, which I drove last month and which blew my mind, is not a Tesla. I had to fly from Silicon Valley to Detroit to drive it because the vehicle was not invented by a celebrated start-up, but by that hoariest cliché of tarnished American manufacturing glory, Chevrolet, which is owned by General Motors.”
Jordan Golson, writing for The Verge web magazine, said, “Though it’s the first electric car that is both affordable and has a range of over 200 miles, the Chevy Bolt is almost aggressively normal. Slipping into the driver’s seat, it feels like any number of other cars I’ve driven.” He added that the “beauty of the Bolt” is that it “seems to be good enough as a car that you won’t need to sacrifice to buy it. If you’re in the market for a small car, the Bolt is worth a long look alongside other cars in its price range.”
The Bolt is a follow-on to Chevy’s plug-in hybrid Volt, which is a commercial failure, in large part because its price tag of $40,000 was too high for the vehicle it delivered. Like many of the early buyers of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, buyers of the Volt were making a “greener-than-thou” statement. High-end Tesla buyers so far are making a statement that “I’m greener than thou, and a heck of a lot richer.”
Will the Bolt energize large sales of EVs? That’s an open question, as the market for EVs in both the U.S. and Europe has been very soft. Forbes recently reported, “Sales of battery electric vehicles in Western Europe fell for the fourth month in a row, an analysis of a respected European industry publication says. In August, a month in which the overall Western European new car market climbed 8%, sales of BEVs in the world’ second largest EV market behind China dropped 1.2% compared to August 2015, paid subscribers of the AID Newsletter were told.”
Part of the problem for future growth is that lithium ion battery technology may have reached the end of the line. The Bolt’s 60 kWh Li-ion battery could be pushing the technology to its limits. The Bolt’s range depends on how hard and fast the car is driven, and whether the air conditioning or heater is on. That’s also true of internal combustion cars, but finding a refueling station for the gasoline engine is mostly a trivial concern. Not so for the battery-propelled vehicles, regardless of range.
As Samsung, Boeing, Tesla, and hoverboard makers have discovered (to their chagrin), lithium-ion batteries, when pushed to their limits, can overheat, ignite, or explode. Australian physicist Mark Harrigan recently tweeted, “Like hoverboards before, the Galaxy Note 7 is a stark reminder of hard physical limits to the mass & energy density of Li-ion batteries.”
I’m a fan of electrification and of battery-powered equipment. I have transitioned my farm and landscaping tools to where I now have two Li-ion-powered string trimmers, along with a pole saw, a regular chain saw, a drill, and two corded chain saws. But I still have a diesel-powered John Deere tractor and I’m not ready to buy a battery-powered car to replace my 12-year-old Toyota Highlander. Maybe that will change.