General Motors introduced the plug-in hybrid car to America. Then the automaker killed it and foreswore ever making it again.
And now, somehow, it’s back.
The vacillations were on display Tuesday as GM, America’s largest automaker, said it would reintroduce a gasoline-electric car with a plug — a combination it effectively abandoned three years ago when it promised to go “all in” on electric vehicles and turn away from gasoline altogether.
GM is the latest automaker to signal that it’s returning to the plug-in hybrid. The vehicle type seemed to be on its way out until late last year.
That’s when EV sales began slowing both in the U.S. and abroad, sending automakers back to the plug-in hybrid. It offers a compromise: a number of emissions-free electric miles, along with a gasoline tank that assures that long road trips won’t live or die on the country’s patchy network of EV charging stations.
GM CEO Mary Barra mentioned the change only briefly Tuesday during a call with investors to discuss the company’s latest earnings statement.
“Our forward plans include bringing our plug-in hybrid technology to select vehicles in North America,” she said.
Barra did not discuss which models would be converted or on what timeline, and a GM spokesperson declined to add more detail.
The reversal underscored how difficult it is for traditional automakers to navigate a transition to electric vehicles in the narrow space between investors who want a profit, regulators who want lower emissions and customers who don’t aren’t yet ready to make the all-electric jump.
Barra said the new plug-in hybrids will be deployed to navigate increasingly strict emissions rules put in place by the Biden administration.
“We are timing the launches to help us comply with the more stringent fuel economy and tailpipe emission standards that are being proposed,” Barra said.
Automakers have opposed proposed rules by EPA, saying they are unrealistic and out of step with drivers’ tastes. The rules would in effect require the companies to produce fleets that are 67 percent EVs by 2032.
Barra insisted that the reincarnation of the plug-in hybrid does not mean that the company is retreating from its plan, announced in 2021, to produce only electric vehicles by 2035.
“Let me be clear, GM remains committed to eliminating tailpipe emissions from our light duty vehicles by 2035,” she said. “But in the interim, deploying plug-in technology in strategic segments will deliver some of the environmental benefits of EVs as the nation continues to build its charging infrastructure.”
This year, GM is ramping up production of electric versions of several of its standard offerings, including the Chevy Blazer and the Chevy Equinox and two electric pickup trucks, the Chevy Silverado and the GMC Sierra.
“Our plan is to produce in wholesale 200,000 to 300,000 Ultium-based Chevrolet, GMC, Cadillac and BrightDrop EVs in North America this year,” Barra said, referring to brands that use the company’s proprietary battery system.
She did add a caveat: “We will be guided by customer demand,” the CEO said.
EV sales are still climbing, but not at the heady rates of the middle of 2023. The sales deflation has caused turmoil throughout the auto industry.
Earlier this month, the car-rental company Hertz said it was selling off part of its fleet of electric Teslas, citing in part a lack of demand from customers. Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk warned of a slowdown in the company’s core EV business.
First came the Volt
GM made automotive history in 2010 when it rolled out the Chevy Volt. The company created the sedan as an answer to Toyota and its groundbreaking hybrid, the Prius, which won over many American drivers with its 50-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency.
The Volt was different. Unlike the Prius, which relied primarily on a gasoline-powered engine with gentle assist from a small electric battery, the Volt relied on a bigger electric battery with some backup from a gasoline engine.
When sales began in 2010, the approach was so new that GM struggled to explain it. GM called it a “range-extended electric car. ”
It had a familiar, though small, nine-gallon gas tank. But that tank was merely a backup to the 16-kilowatt-hour battery, which the driver had to recharge by plugging it in. The Volt could travel on battery alone for up to 50 miles, far more than plug-in hybrids on the market today.
The Volt was never a huge hit — it sold 157,000 units in the U.S. over a decade — but it persuaded many American drivers that the electric vehicle was a real thing.
“I know a lot of people who bought Volts and loved them,” said Karl Brauer, an auto analyst for the auto sales website iSeeCars.com. “They would love that they would put 10 gallons in the tank and take forever to use 10 gallons.”
In 2018, Chevrolet announced it was discontinuing the Volt. At the time, it was ramping up production of the Bolt, the company’s first full-scale production EV. In 2021, the company announced its intention to sell only electric vehicles by 2035.
‘Toyota was right’
Since making its all-EV commitment, GM has distinguished itself from other traditional automakers in its unalloyed, EVs-first approach.
Many automakers now produce plug-in hybrids, though in small numbers.
GM rival Ford introduced high-profile EVs like the Lightning F-150 pickup truck, but the automaker kept a wide stable of hybrids that it has recently said it will expand. The only electric forays by Stellantis, the maker of Jeep, Ram and Dodge vehicles, were into hybrids until just recently when it announced plans to make all-electric models.
Meanwhile, GM moved to graft EVs to the company’s heart.
It celebrated its new battery technology, called Ultium, and laid plans for three giant battery factories in the United States. It planned to incorporate EVs across its offerings, making it the centerpiece of a relaunch of the Cadillac and Hummer brands, and prepared to produce EV versions of nearly all of its vehicle models.
GM “made it very clear, plug-ins are the in-between thing, and we’re going to focus on the next thing,” Brauer said.
In a history-echoing twist, GM’s move back into plug-in-hybrids is mimicking — once again — Toyota.
Alone among traditional automakers, Toyota took the opposite position from GM. As other automakers declared they would go all-electric, Toyota has insisted on making its EVs alongside gasoline, fuel-cell and hybrid vehicles.
It did so in the face of strenuous objections of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which waged an international campaign insisting the automaker “join many of its competitors and commit to phasing out gas-powered cars.”
Recently, Toyota Chair Akio Toyoda said he thinks that in the future, EVs will construe only 30 percent of vehicles. The company intends to make plug-in hybrids at the nearly $14 billion battery and vehicle-assembly complex it is building in North Carolina.
“GM is going to backtrack into what Toyota is doing,” Brauer said. “This is 1,000 percent a sign that Toyota was right.”
The plug-in’s climate cost
Experts said the climate impact of GM’s move back into plug-in hybrids depends a great deal on the role they play in the company’s vehicle mix.
The big question is what the plug-in hybrids replace, said Pete Slowik, an EV researcher at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
“Will it be at the expense of EVs, or of traditional gasoline vehicles?” he asked.
The question matters because, according to ICCT’s research, plug-in hybrids lie right between the gasoline vehicle and the EVs in their climate impact.
Taking into account vehicles’ entire life cycle, including the manufacturing and the emissions of generating the electricity that EVs consume, plug-in hybrids have carbon emissions 50 percent higher than EVs.
The reasons are complex. On one hand, plug-in hybrids produce dramatically less emissions because most car trips are short and can be done on battery alone. On the other, Slowik said, many drivers of plug-in vehicles neglect to charge the vehicles, which causes them to pollute just like a traditional gasoline vehicle would.
“If [GM is] delaying EVs, that’s a loss, but if they are replacing plug-in hybrids with gasoline-car sales, then that’s a win,” Slowik said.
Chris Harto, a transportation and energy policy analyst at Consumer Reports, said GM’s waltz back into plug-in hybrids is probably just what the company says it is: a means of meeting escalating federal emissions standards.
Automakers’ fleets face increasingly stringent U.S. emissions standards in 2025 and 2026. Those standards are likely to tighten much more in ensuing years, as the Biden administration has proposed new emissions regulations that would in effect require fleets comprised of 67 percent electric vehicles by 2032.
How GM is responding to those emissions rules is also tied to the automaker’s rocky path to making and selling EVs.
GM sold about 75,000 EVs in the first three quarters of 2023. It would have been more if not for battery production snarls that slowed output of two signature models, the Cadillac Lyriq and the Hummer EV.
Recently, GM has also fielded complaints from customers about buggy electronics in the new Chevy Blazer.
“To me, it reads as a hedge against the continued problems with their Ultium rollout, which is really not going according to plan,” Harto said.