The Pandemic Won't Stall the Car of the Future

Even as GM builds PPE, it looks to an electric, autonomous future

Sitting in my home office, I glance out sadly at my car parked at the curb. Ever since the pandemic, it’s spent more time hugging that bit of concrete than on the road. My wife’s car is no different. She’s barely driven a day since our governor introduced his stay at home orders.

Illustration of an electric car hovering above the clouds
 Lifewire / Joshua Seong

A mile or so from my house is my gas station with 1990s-era gas pricing (under $2 a gallon) and pumps gathering dust. It won’t always be like this, but I think our relationship with automobiles and the road may have changed, and it got me wondering how auto manufacturers view things. Are they scuttling plans for innovative electric and autonomous cars and eyeing a return to all-combustion all the time? Those gas prices, which are unlikely to skyrocket anytime soon, might encourage people, when they start leaving home again, to take to the road.

Recently, I reported on General Motors (GM) shuttering its Maven drive share company and wondered if it was a sign of a new direction, one away from innovation and back to the tried and true, what made American auto companies great for over a century.

However, when I spoke to a top exec at GM, he made it clear that it’s not repaving its future roadmap and is instead putting its foot on the accelerator and pressing, hard.

Cars on the road
Remember driving and how exciting it used to be?. Duel / Universal Studios

Cruise Control

It's been an intense time for GM. Over the past two months, the 111-year-old company, parent to Chevy, Cadillac, GMC, and Buick, stopped building cars and trucks, essentially vaporizing its revenue stream. At the same time, it started building personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and shields, for frontline COVID-19 workers and even, in the space of three weeks, designed, retooled, and started building ventilators in its Kokomo, Indiana, plant.

It would be reasonable to assume that these changes forced a significant rethink of GM’s priorities.

“When [the pandemic] really began taking hold and the stay at home and quarantine orders meant we could not build cars and trucks… we had to decide where we do and don’t spend money,” said Ken Morris, Vice President of Electric Vehicles and Autonomous Vehicle Programs for GM, when we spoke this week.

Morris, who like the rest of us, has been hunkered down at home for over 45 days, said this time was a “chance to look at our own strategies and priorities.”

Turns out that the priorities before the pandemic will be the same after. As the company put together plans for delaying spending and altering timing to maintain liquidity, they decided early on that, when it came to electric and autonomous vehicles, “we were not changing anything” said Morris.

A Bolt out of Detroit

Let’s be clear, GM is no Tesla. It has a single all-electric vehicle, the Chevy Bolt (it replaced the hybrid-electric Volt), a $42,000 EV with a range of 259 miles. By contrast, Tesla sells an extended range Model 3 with a 322-mile range.

GM, though, has big EV plans, announcing earlier this year that it will have 20 electric vehicle models on the road, globally, by 2023. And it won’t be just one type of EV. GM wants an electric vehicle for every market segment, this includes cars, trucks, and SUVs. “If you want a Suburban, a Bolt is not the right vehicle for you,” said Morris.

The company is also hoping to avoid charging premium prices for electric cars. The plan, Morris told me, is to scale EV manufacturing and bring overall costs down. “So the customer does not have to pay a penalty to get an electric vehicle at all.”

I wonder if social distancing might even change how car companies advertise seating options ('You can even put six feet between you and your passenger!')

Recalculating

The world, though, is quite different than the one in which GM unveiled its EV car plan on March 4. I don’t know when or if gas prices will ever return to pre-COVID-19 ranges, but surely cheaper gas will make combustion cars, and maybe driving itself, more attractive again.

“For the gas price conversation,” said Morris, “it takes a little bit of peeling back of the layers of the onion."

If, he noted, GM went forward with a hybrid car strategy, one where the vehicles use electric engines backed by combustion ones that sometimes drive and charge the battery, buyers would be making purchase calculations based on how much gas would cost and how savings on the hybrid system would eventually pay them back. “Then gas prices are very important,” he added.

By going pure EV, Morris believes consumers will be agnostic when it comes to gas prices. This, obviously, assumes that consumers are buying GM’s future EV cars and not looking, perhaps, at cheaper gas trucks from somebody else.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris, GM's VP of EV and AV programs, is working from home like the rest of us. GM

I wondered if GM was at all modeling its all-electric vehicle strategy on what Tesla’s accomplished. Morris dismissed the notion and told me they approached the business differently. GM went directly to customers to do research, talking to those interested in EVs and those who said they would never buy one. They asked what GM would have to do to attract them and the answers were largely the same as for a combustion car, including great styling and usability.

“One thing that comes through very clearly is a 300-mile range for anyone to take your electric vehicle seriously,” said Morris, which is quite an admission considering the Bolt’s current range.

You Drive

GM cars, like most new cars on the road, have a range of semi-autonomous features like enhanced cruise control, collision avoidance systems, and auto-braking. However, it’s also been working on fully autonomous systems and, up until the stay at home orders, was running self-driving car tests at its Milford Proving Grounds and out on the roads in Phoenix and San Francisco—of which Morris said, “It’s a tough test bed there.”

The car company remains committed to putting self-driving cars on the road. Morris, who has been with GM for 31 years, does believe that the pandemic and social distancing stratagems may change how consumers think about autonomous driving.

COVID-19 may, in fact, change customer attitudes toward driving. “Ride sharing is a huge convenience but you’re still getting in the vehicle with another person. People may be more comfortable getting in the vehicle without another person. That is the advantage of autonomous vehicles: you don’t have a driver,” said Morris.

Ventilator tests
Instead of cars, GM has been building critical care ventilators at its manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana. AJ Mast / General Motors

One of the things that’s held back widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is inadequate support for autonomous systems on streets and highways. As the global economy slowly regains its footing, it’s unclear if infrastructure rebuilding and upgrades will take a back seat or take over the wheel. I asked Morris if he worried abut how a sputtering infrastructure program might impact his autonomous plans.

“In jobs prior, 5 -to-6 years ago, I thought it would be heavily infrastructure dependent, V-to-V [vehicle-to-vehicle communication] and V-to-X [vehicle to infrastructure communication]. It’s evolving, it’s not. The sensing and high-powered computing that goes into the cars and knowledge of where the car is based on very accurate GPS. It’s really independent of infrastructure more than I ever thought it would be,” said Morris. He added, though, that infrastructure that can support V-to-V and V-to-X would be really helpful.

The Post-Pandemic Car Company

As a company, GM is not building cars at the moment, but its salespeople are selling, albeit through digital means. “Our dealers have gotten much crisper and effective at the online interfaces with customers and it’s a great opportunity to really sharpen those skills,” said Morris.

Morris couldn’t say if customer perception of cars and driving is really changing, but he has thought a bit about the impact of COVID-19 on future car designs.

Car factory
Eventually, GM will get back to building electric cars like these Bolts. General Motors

Engineers and designers might look for interior materials that are, say, more virus resistant. In addition, they might be considering social distancing within the vehicle, which would impact traditional seating. I wonder if it might even change how car companies advertise seating options (“You can even put six feet between you and your passenger!”).

So What

The present is intense and difficult for all of us, GM included, but Morris said the business is still focused on the future, a vision that includes “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” Autonomous vehicles fulfill the crash and congestion visions and EVs could fulfil the emissions dream.

“It’s not just window dressing. It’s how we view the future. I don’t think COVID-19 will really affect that. The world is still going to need solutions to those problems.”

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