Future of EVs: GM’s “Ultium” platform and radical new battery arrive just as electric is cost-competitive with gasoline

GM CEO Mary Barra addresses Ultium launch audience. Photo by Steve Fecht for GM.

“We are aggressively going after every aspect of the EV ecosystem because we need millions of EVs on the roads to make a meaningful impact toward building a zero-emission world.” – GM CEO Mary Barra

General Motors gave the world a glimpse of the electric motoring future Wednesday and, it appears, technology seems again to be outpacing forecasts. A recent study by the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER) comparing the cost of driving for electric and conventional vehicles demonstrates how quickly the electric vehicle (EV) landscape is changing.

The venerable automaker’s next generation of electric vehicles was launched at its Warren, Michigan “design dome.” Highlights included new Ultium batteries that are significantly lower cost but still have higher density and a new platform that will be the foundation for 19 EV models ranging from small cars to pickup trucks and SUVs. Combined with economies of scale and capital advantages that come with being the world’s largest automobile manufacturer for decades, GM has thrown down the gauntlet for its competitors.

Watch Markham’s interview with Navigant analyst Sam Abuelsamid, who attended the Ultium launch.

Let’s compare the late-2019 CER levelized cost of driving estimates and its assumptions with the new information released by GM.

Matt Hansen is the economist responsible for the study. He calculated the costs to drive a vehicle per kilometre assuming different purchase, fuel, maintenance costs, and lifespans using 2018 data. It’s important to note that Hansen’s study does not include provincial (up to $3,000 in BC and up to $8,000 in Quebec, for example) or federal government ($2,500 to $5,000) subsidies.

“Typically, electric vehicles are more expensive to buy, but potentially cheaper to operate because they’re a lot more efficient,” he told Energi Media.

Hansen ran the numbers for two cases. The reference case takes into account the current economic outlook, “a moderate view of energy prices and improving technology, and announced and sufficiently detailed climate and energy policies at the time of analysis.” The technology case is based upon “stronger long-term carbon policy, faster uptake of technology such as electric vehicles, and lower costs of renewables.”

In 2020, EV and ICE (internal combustion engine) cars and trucks are only separated by a cent or two per kilometre in both cases. Ten years later, and the electric option is clearly less expensive in the reference case and enjoys a significant advantage in the technology case. By 2040, the reference case for EVs has improved slightly, but the technology case continues to make solid gains.

Hansen points out that LCOD calculations are “very sensitive” to changes in assumed costs. For example, if kilometres driven jumps from 15,000 to 20,000, EV costs decline faster than those for ICE vehicles. Presumably, taxi companies and ride-sharing drives would benefit from switching to electric.

Subsidies could play a big role in boosting adoption by lowering capital costs from five to 10 per cent at the lower end of the range (BC) to as more than 25 per cent at the higher end (Quebec).

Where does GM’s new EV lineup fit into Hansen’s calculations?

GM reveals its all-new modular platform and battery system, Ultium. Photo by Steve Fecht for GM.

CEO Mary Barra didn’t provide price or range specifics, but there is enough information to make reasonable assumptions about how EV LCOD will be affected.

Her company’s new “Ultium” battery is an engineering marvel. “GM’s joint venture with LG Chem will drive battery cell costs below $100USD/kWh,” the threshold at which EV purchase prices will rival those of ICE vehicles, the company said in a press release. “The cells use a proprietary low cobalt chemistry and ongoing technological and manufacturing breakthroughs will drive costs even lower.”

Range in the premium models will be around 640 kilometres and lower in base models. All Ultium batteries will be fast-charging capable – 160 kilometres in 10 minutes and a full charge in 30 minutes. The acceleration from 0 to 100 kph will be as low as three seconds, about the same as the 2020 C8 Chevy Corvette.

What’s not to love?

If EVs were competitive with ICE vehicles using 2018 data, electric appears set to take the lead with the GM announcement. Throw in subsidies and the anxiety-reducing build-out of charging infrastructure by utilities, governments, and companies that is well underway and the advantage clearly swings to EVs.

Just as during the 1990s when telecommunications giants built the digital fibre backbone that enabled the Internet Boom, so the 2020s are shaping up to be the Electric Boom as automakers scale-up manufacturing to deliver a superior product and driving experience at a competitive price.

“Our team accepted the challenge to transform product development at GM and position our company for an all-electric future,” she told automotive journalists at the launch, noting that for the first time GM expects EV manufacturing to be profitable.

Can Barra deliver the EVs she promised in her speech? Can her competitors?

New GM EV models built on the Ultium platform hit showrooms this fall, so we won’t have to wait long to find out the answer.

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