Cheaper batteries will help GM profit from electric vehicles by 2021, CEO says

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra during the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

DETROIT — General Motors intends to make a profit on its next generation of electric vehicles because the batteries will cost nearly one-third less than the batteries in today’s Chevrolet Bolt, CEO Mary Barra said Nov. 15.

In October, GM product development chief Mark Reuss said the company intended to introduce 20 electrified vehicles by 2023.

The ambitious goal comes as U.S. auto sales are slightly below last year’s record level, and consumers continue to prefer larger pickup trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, most of which are powered by gasoline engines.

Sales of gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery-only vehicles in the United States are up 12.5 percent in the first 10 months of 2017 from a year earlier. But at 454,399 units, they represent only 3.2 percent of the market.

Battery cells are the big cost in most electrified vehicles, which cost a few thousand dollars more than comparable-size gas-fueled models.

Barra said the batteries for the Chevrolet Bolt cost about $145 per kilowatt hour. By 2021, GM is confident that will drop to about $100 per kWh.

There are two reasons GM is betting heavily on electric vehicles. First, China, where GM and its partners sell more cars and trucks than GM sells in North America, is urging automakers to make, and consumers to buy, more electric cars.

China is requiring automakers to achieve a certain new-energy vehicle score tied to the quantity of zero- and low-emission vehicles it sells. The target is 10 percent of a manufacturer’s fleet in 2019 and 12 percent in 2020.

GM sold 3.87 million vehicles in China last year. So 10 percent of that would be 387,000. GM predicts global industry sales of electric vehicles will reach one million by 2026.

The other force pushing for electrification is autonomous vehicle technology. The greater computing power of EVs is compatible with the density of sensors, cameras, and software that guide self-driving cars.

Barra said GM’s progress on autonomous technology accelerated after it acquired San Francisco-based Cruise Automation in early 2016. The partners are now testing self-driving fleets in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Ariz., and metro Detroit, and early next year will be testing in New York City.

They have developed three generations of autonomous vehicles in 15 months.

The expectation among automakers and urban planners is that AVs will be deployed primarily in ride-hailing fleets.

They will displace taxi drivers, as well as drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other services. But automation will bring down the cost to consumers who make multiple trips in densely populated urban areas.

“Today ride-sharing only represents about 0.1 percent of total miles driven in the U.S.,” Barra said.

That seems like a tiny piece of the transportation pie, but Goldman Sachs estimates the global ride-hailing market is about $36 billion today. It forecasts that will grow to $65 billion by 2030.

The unanswered question is whether these new services can generate the robust profit margins generated by large pickup trucks and SUVs.

“The electric vehicle is simpler than an internal-combustion-engine vehicle,” Barra said. “There are a lot of creative things we can do to bring the cost down.”

The revenue will be driven as much by the services EVs support as well as the data they can gather. Automakers see that data, such as commuting patterns, and dining and shopping habits, as something they can sell to other users.