GM goes “all-in” on EVs. Ultium platform looks promising, but where are the cars?

General Motors held their big EV Day event today to convince the world that they are on top of the transition to Electric Vehicles. Thankfully it seems they, like Ford and a growing number of legacy automakers are admitting EV is the future.

General Motors is now ‘all-in’ on electric, whatever that means. To me, that means we’ll never see the company ever design a new combustion-powered vehicle, although they weren’t exactly that declarative.

What they did detail is that they believe they’re making the right set of investments in retooling operations to gear up to make millions of EVs. From buildings to R&D divisions, right through to hiring the right people with tomorrow’s skills, GM tell us they’re ready to compete and are playing to win.

General Motors reveals its all-new modular platform and battery system, Ultium, Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)

The new vehicle game requires new expertise in batteries, electric motors, aerodynamic efficient designs, autonomous capabilities, great infotainment and at least a business relationship to enable customers to access charging infrastructure.GM claims the have answers for all of it.

Given the task of migrating all of General Motors’ vehicle fleet to electric, the company talks about its new modular platform and battery system, Ultium. This has the potential to adapt to many different vehicle types and will include battery capacities ranging from 50-200kWh and come in FWD, RWD and AWD configurations.

The amount of batteries you need is a key determiner of the finding cost of the vehicle, with the battery pack accounting for the single biggest cost of an EV. GM says they’re interested in building vehicles that have increased range and a decrease cost.

To achieve that, you need a LOT of batteries and they’re going to come from a partnership with LG Chem who will build a new plant in Ohio (Gigafactory’s first competition).

The battery cells are similar to Tesla / Panasonic’s oversized AA battery, configured in a battery pack that forms the floor of the vehicle. They will use a new battery technology, NMCA, which reduces the amount of cobalt required in the battery pack.

The exact number of batteries required is determined by the efficiency of power delivery and the range objectives of each vehicle. Having a vehicle be affordable and have great range, there’s a lot of work to do and a high benchmark (set by Tesla).

General Motors President Mark Reuss addresses the gathering Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at an event detailing GM’s electric vehicle technologies and upcoming products in the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)

In terms of battery production, GM are aiming for 30GWh of capacity per year (with room to grow), which I’m sure has nothing to do with Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 production rate at the end of 2019, which was also 30GWh/year.

GM is building a new EV assembly plant and will break ground this Spring (US time). It is promising to hear GM speak about the future where the company aims to be selling a million EVs per year. This translates to a production rate of 250 Million cells per year, hundreds of thousands per day and tens of thousands every single hour.

GM’s current product offerings, currently have a crazy level of complexity with as many as 555 different drivetrain combinations available. When the move to EVs is complete, they expect to have just 19 to suit all vehicle types.

This reduction in production complexity pairs nicely with the dramatically lower part count for EVs and owners benefit from dramatically less serviceable parts.

One of the biggest issues I had with today’s announcements, is the number of promises for the future, with nothing being on the schedule to be delivered to consumers for years.

I get it, it must be difficult to throw out almost every core skill and competitive advantage you have to start over, but that is literally what’s required right now.

GM does have the fully electric Bolt (in the US), but the really new cars, the ones built on this new Ultium platform, won’t be on the road for a very long time. We also seen big claims like ‘we will’ beat the $100/kWh target.. without any precise timeline to do so. We understand that scaled-out production is the key to accelerating this price curve, but GM should have some understanding of which year that may be.

General Motors reveals its all-new modular platform and battery system, Ultium, Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)

For me personally, the GM EV Day was interesting and likely to give fans of the brand some reassurance that things will get better in time. For the competition, namely market leader Tesla, I think you’d be very happy tonight as your head hits the pillow, you’re ahead.. a really long way ahead and the competition are going to spend Billions trying to catch up.

If GM is to convince customers to wait and buy their electric vehicles, they have to be better, cheaper and have better features than what’s in the market.

A key benchmark of future EVs will not just be their performance, range and cost, but also their ability for Autonomous driving. GM had already announced they were expanding the rollout of their hands-off technology – Super Cruise.

Today GM confirmed that we’d see Super Cruise come to the Bolt EV soon, 10 more over the next 12 months and 22 by 2023. This works by using a driver monitoring camera (and some smart AI) to ensure you are paying attention, removing the need to supply torque to the steering wheel. The downside is this is still limited to select highways in the US.

If you want to play in the EV space now, Tesla made your job really difficult on the software side, with customers now expecting free OTA Updates and often. GM, like Ford has made promises to do this, but it’s only once they deliver vehicles, and a string of updates, that we’ll be able to tell how serious they were about this.

When it comes to charging, GM believes most owners will charge at home, but workplace and public charging are also important. To encourage EV adoption among its employees, GM will install 3,500 charging stations across the US and Canada at their facilities.

When considering a journey, GM customers will be able to get information about available public charging locations along their journey using an app called Energy Plan. This will be available inside future EVs from GM.

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Jason Cartwright
Jason Cartwright
Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis. Disclaimer: Tesla Shareholder from 20/01/2021

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