Give Elon Musk credit. His public relations people are brilliant. Tesla is the Band-Aid, Kleenex, Scotch Tape, Velveeta and Velcro for the future of cars. Everyone in the universe of mindshare around electric cars (EVs) orbits Tesla. People who know nothing about EVs equate Tesla with EVs. Every EV in the next few years will be compared to a Tesla.
That’s a problem for car manufacturers, and they don’t even understand it.
People don’t buy a Tesla solely for the car. They’re buying into an ecosystem that includes an EV. An ecosystem that upends everything about the traditional ownership experience, without which any EV—even a Tesla—is just a brick in a pond.
This is where GM got almost everything wrong with the Bolt. This is why the Bolt will fail.
The Bolt On Its Own Merits
It sounds like a good idea, and the automotive press has been raving. It’s a game changer! It’s the right car at the right price at the right time! It’s $30k after government incentives! It’s got 200 miles of range! Chill. Yes, the Bolt looks pretty good as EVs go, and it’s coming out at least a year before the much-anticipated Tesla Model 3.
There we are, back to Tesla again, which makes no sense, because if the Bolt wasn’t electric, no one would mention Tesla at all.
Actually, no one would mention the Bolt either.
Consider the Bolt on its own merits. A $30k car with 200 miles of range? It’ll do 0-60 in less than seven seconds? Not impressed.
Can you guess what’s 3/10ths of a second slower, costs the same, has 650-plus miles of range, is more comfortable, and has more interior and trunk space? It’s the Honda Accord Hybrid, a car based on a 28-time Car and Driver 10 Best Winner. I forgot to mention Japanese reliability, which I’d take any day over the first year of a GM-manufactured EV, especially one built to a price point.
The Bolt looks even worse if you compare it to a Honda Civic Hybrid, which is still bigger than the and costs $5,000 less. That’s a lot of spare change you can spend on gas for a car that gets 45 to 50 mpg.
Hey, neither the Accord nor the Civic are lookers, but they’re no worse looking than the Bolt. It’s not obviously trying to be funky and aerodynamic and weird. For a car its size, it looks...good? But no one is going to buy the Bolt for its cosmetics. For that, we have the Ford Focus, maybe even the Fiesta, and small Peugeots made between 1987 and 1994.
But the Bolt’s electric, Alex. You can’t ignore that.
Okay, it’s electric. Let’s talk about that electric thing, the only rationalization for the Bolt’s existence.
Why Does Anyone Think Electrification Is A Good Idea?
Pollution? Saving the environment? Check. By that standard, any EV is a good idea, if you live somewhere with hydroelectric, geothermal, solar or nuclear power. Move to Iceland or France, or get some panels for the roof of your house. If not, it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. You’re just moving the combustion and pollution necessary to charge your car further up the food chain.
Saving money on gas? Now we’re getting somewhere. I spent some time with Gisli Gislason, the charismatic Icelandic entrepreneur responsible for importing Teslas into that fine land. “Buying gas?” he laughed. “It’s like throwing money out the window.” In a country with free geothermal power and few gas stations, it’s more like throwing it into Eyjafjallajökull. In a tiny country that’s highly taxed, EVs make perfect sense.
Except that Iceland ain’t America. Read this article. Gas here is cheap. And probably getting cheaper. That chops the biggest leg out from under the table of the EVs, as long you have to pay a $5k premium for one. Remove the government incentives, and the real premium for EVs is $12,500.
Twelve-thousand and five hundred dollars of your tax money.
Am I against EVs? No. But we’re all paying for them whether we own one or not.
Range Anxiety? Meet Charging Annoyance
’Merica is a big place. You need range. Think you’ll get 200 miles of range out of a Bolt? That’s under minimum load in perfect conditions. I’d be surprised if it gets 180. Maybe even 170. Two hundred is a nice round number for marketing purposes. Just like the EPA-approved mileage figures that manufacturers have been gaming for the for the last 45 years.
The public’s understanding of EV efficiency and range in the real world is nonexistent. Unless you’ve owned one. I spent 57 hours and 48 minutes driving cross country in a Tesla Model S, listening the whole time to my co-drivers explain the minutiae of maximizing battery efficiency. The jetstream, drafting trucks, a gentle right foot, emptying your trunk. It takes work. But the Model S has 240-280 miles of range out of the gate, which is more like 230-250 in the real world. And less in winter.
Two hundred and fifty miles of range isn’t great, but 180 miles gets you into range anxiety. You will need to charge, and recharge. And recharge. Not as much as a Nissan Leaf or BMW i3, but more than a Tesla. Charging a Tesla is fairly easy away from home. The factory GPS automatically calculates the distance to the nearest free Tesla Supercharging station. The network is pretty good, and getting better every day.
I said fairly easy. You might have to wait during peak times, but there’s a funny thing about Tesla owners. If you can afford a $80-140k EV, you probably have a high-current charger at home. Problem solved. If not, back to a Supercharger. Not ideal, but you’ve got 230-250 miles of range, so even daily slow charges at home will keep you at a comfortable level.
The problems with Bolt recharging aren’t remotely solved. They’re just beginning. A real-world range of maybe 170 miles means this is a city car. Maybe even a suburban commuter car. Where are you going to recharge? How many people shopping for a $30k car own a house? A house with a driveway? How about a garage? If you street park, you’re not charging at night. Live in an HOA and park in a common lot? You’re not charging overnight. If you have a garage, can you afford to install a high-current charger? If you can’t or won’t, because, say, you’re renting, prepare for some glacial recharge times through 120V wall power.
Charging Away From Home
There is a good alternative, but it’s not great. You can use a network like Chargepoint. They’ve got thousands of locations, far more than Tesla, but you’re going to have to pay. Not every time, but most of the time. Not as much as gas, but it’s more than zero.
So much for free energy.
Have you heard the stories about Tesla owners arguing over line-cutting at Supercharging stations? Superchargers have up to a dozen spots, and even they get busy at peak hours.
I’ve seen dozens of Chargepoints in New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C., and most of them had only one or two.
Good luck getting the spot you need, when you need it. In an NYC garage, you’re going to have to tip the attendant at least 10 bucks to move some cars. Hope you’re not in a rush. Ten bucks? At today’s prices that’s a couple of gallons of gas, which in an Accord Hybrid could get you almost 120 miles. More as gas prices keep falling.
If you must use Chargepoint in an urban garage, you’ve got to pay urban garage prices. I don’t want to tell you what I’ve paid for a couple of hours in New York. Wait. Yes, I do. Sixty-four dollars.
Neither GM nor any other manufacturer owns their own charging network. They can’t even agree on connection standards, although they’re talking about it. There are currently three: Chevy/BMW, Nissan/Mitsubishi/Toyota, and Tesla. Not a good start. I’m sure someone will make a ton of cash adding chargers to gas stations. I hope the stations have tons of adapters. They do in Iceland. Your local BP or Shell? They can’t even guarantee a bathroom.
It would suck if someone drove off with the adapter you needed.
Someone should build out a network that looks like Tesla’s, but with services and bathrooms superior to that of your local gas station. It wouldn’t be hard, but it would be expensive.
But the Bolt comes out later this year. Typical buyers of $30k cars are in for a surprise if they drive off the lot in a Bolt. The honeymoon will last 48 hours, right through the first charge. The charging infrastructure is sort of there, but the connection capacity at each station isn’t. For every Bolt sold, the problem will get worse. Three months free charging with your Bolt? Great, if a charger is available when you need it.
If it sounds like I’m anti-Bolt, you’re wrong. It’s this close to being the perfect NYC car. I almost want one, but the garage in my building charges $800/month, and they’ve already got three Teslas sharing one Chargepoint. I don’t need the stress and uncertainty.
So much for the Bolt as a city car, at least in the Northeast and San Francisco.
All Ecosystems Are Not The Same
An EV ecosystem requires more than a car and a charging network. It requires software and service. This is where the Bolt is totally dead in the water. Chevy’s got a decent EV and a third-party network just out of infancy.
And nothing else.
Consider the Tesla ecosystem. You almost need to own a Tesla to comprehend it. Almost. No-haggle pricing. Company owned stores. Universally knowledgeable staff. Over the air software (OTA) updates. A proprietary infotainment system that has worked for years. The most advanced semi-Autonomous Driving (AD) system on the road today.
Is Tesla perfect? No. But no one is, and the worst Tesla ownership experiences are still vastly better than what is considered normal for almost any legacy brand. Owned an off-warranty Maserati lately? A BMW? A Merc? How about a Land Rover or Fiat?
Traditional franchise dealers are like DMV offices with better furniture, and often not even. A Tesla store is like an Apple store that sells cars. A Tesla, like an iPhone, is upgradeable. Options are few, but the improvement path is long. You want the latest AD software in your Porsche/Audi/BMW? You have to buy a new car. Heard of anyone retrofitting AD sensors to their old one? I haven’t. Upgrading your Tesla? The sensors were built-in two years before Autopilot 7 was released. Park it overnight. Voila! OTA update.
Lifestyle ≠ Ecosystem
Manufacturers are always talking their brand’s “lifestyle,” but what they really want you to do is exist inside their ecosystem. They want you to stay within the brand, but branded shirts, hats and cufflinks do not an ecosystem make. You can switch from BMW to Audi with no change in your lifestyle other than your keyfob. They’re just cars.
Once you’ve bought into the Tesla ecosystem, you have changed your lifestyle. For all the complaints my Tesla owning friends share with me, not one of them want to part with their cars. But it’s not the cars they’re loyal to. Even when the real “Tesla Killers” arrive, they’ll just be more bricks in a growing pond. I’m as excited as everyone else about the Porsche Mission-E, but I haven’t heard a peep from Porsche or anyone else but building an ecosystem.
Tesla’s Supercharger network is the foundation of their ecosystem. As of September 30, 2015, they reported the net book value of the network as $154 million. That’s an absolute drop in the bucket for the big car manufacturers. It’s a fraction of the money raised by any number of Silicon Valley startups, and the $500 million GM invested in Lyft.
When GM CEO Mary Barra talks about disruption, she’s utterly unserious. Real disruption would be a GM-branded network. It would cost a fraction of the $4.1 billion GM spent on its ignition switch scandal.
They could start building it tomorrow.
What’s The Definition of Success or Failure for the Bolt?
GM will call it a success no matter what happens, but failure is built into the Bolt. It exists to meet CAFE requirements and as a PR stunt. GM has already claimed the PR victory. That Wired article and the Obama pic are real home runs. The first legacy manufacturer to release a real-world EV with decent range at a reasonable price.
A victory, but a pyrrhic one.
As a product release, there is no bar for the Bolt’s success. Is it selling 20,000? 50,000? 100,000? It will be a costly disaster that grows with every sale. Will GM lose money on every Bolt at $30k? Wait until the discounts begin.
However good the reviews or early sales, demand will plummet. Word-of-mouth will kill it. No one will buy a second Bolt. It may delay or kill demand for affordable EVs altogether.
Charging annoyance. The service experience. The brand insecurity. The range anxiety. The dealer pressure not to buy it. The dealer pressure to trade-in your Gen 1 when the lease is up for a gas or hybrid car that is easier to own, and more profitable to sell.
The irony of the Bolt is that even if owners come to love their little corner of the EV lifestyle, in three years they’re going to want something better. Something one or two classes up. Something GM doesn’t make, and the German “Tesla Killers” won’t offer.
A product that improves upon the car and the ownership experience, because of its ecosystem.
It’s the Tesla 3. It doesn’t matter if it’s two years late, or $10k more than promised. The Tesla premium isn’t merely about the car. As an EV, the Tesla 3 has everything Chevy doesn’t, and no one else has either.
The Bolt is too expensive, too early and all alone. As an EV, it needs to be $25k. As a Chevy, it needs to be $20k. It needs a real charging network, otherwise it’s useless for buyers in that price bracket. The only people for whom it makes any sense are people who can’t afford the Model S and don’t want to wait for the 3. Something tells me they won’t be buying Bolts.
Call me when used Bolts are $10k. I’ll buy one.
Yes, I’m a Tesla fan. The Model S, not the company. The Model X? Not sure about those Falcon doors. The S is a fascinating and terrific car. It makes no sense for anyone living in NYC to own one, however, for all the same reasons as the Bolt. Also, Tesla interior quality isn’t what it should be. It’s Spartan, at best.
Am I anti-GM? Not at all. GM makes a terrific car priced right that doesn’t get enough love. Already discounted, you can probably get one for Bolt prices. A nice comfortable hybrid no one will ever steal, with a big trunk. And it has 420 miles of range, with 50 miles on the battery alone. It’s the best of both worlds.
It’s called the Volt. It starts at $27k.
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