GM planning major transition that will eliminate petrol and diesel cars by 2035
DETROIT - General Motors has pledged to stop making petrol-powered cars, vans and SUVs by 2035, marking a historic turning point for the iconic American carmaker and promising a future of new electric vehicles for American motorists.
GM chief executive Mary Barra, who antagonised many climate experts by embracing President Donald Trump's relaxation of fuel efficiency targets, said on Thursday that the company now wants to lead the way to a greener future.
"As one of the world's largest automakers, we hope to set an example of responsible leadership in a world that is faced with climate change," Barra said on LinkedIn.
GM has said it would invest $27 billion (R409bn) in electric vehicles and associated products between 2020 and 2025, outstripping its spending on conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles. That figure includes refurbishing factories and investing in battery production in conjunction with LG Chem, a South Korean battery maker.
As part of its plan, GM - maker of Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Corvettes, among others - will manufacture about 30 different electric vehicles. By late 2025, about 40% of the company's US models will be battery-powered electric vehicles, it said. And it pledged to make its factories and other facilities carbon neutral by 2040.
One of the Big Three carmakers that dominated the North American car market for decades, GM has rolled out millions of pollution-spewing cars and trucks. Transportation accounts for about 28% of total US greenhouse-gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of the pollution that is driving climate change. GM now faces the task of reorienting and revamping supply chains, assembly lines and its labour force to produce a new kind of product that few Americans have experienced.
"This is a very significant pivot . . . especially for such an iconic American institution," said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
For a century, GM has been a giant of American carmaking and of the Michigan economy. In Rabe's corner of southeastern Michigan, where tens of thousands of people are employed by the motor industry, "the central part of life has been the performance of the internal-combustion engine."
"This is more than just a quick flip of the dial," he said. "It's a very wrenching transition."
An expensive transition
It will also be expensive, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labour and economics at the nonprofit Centre for Automotive Research. Converting a single plant from making combustion engines to electric drivetrains is a billion-dollar investment or more, she said. And pledging to complete that transition by 2035 is "an aggressive target," she said.
The electric-vehicle industry has grown exponentially in the past decade but still represents less than 2% of cars sold in the United States. Global electric-vehicle sales grew in 2020 even while the rest of the car market suffered from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The International Energy Agency projects that the global number of battery-powered and hybrid vehicles could increase from just over 5 million to nearly 140 million by 2030.
The timing of the GM announcement was tied in large part to the election of Joe Biden to the White House. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden detailed a far-reaching plan to transition the US economy away from oil, gas and coal and toward solar, wind and other clean energy.
"Major industries have to kind of look to the future and anticipate it," Rabe said. "Do you really want to be the last one standing with the possibility that you're just producing nostalgic vehicles that are being regulated or priced out of existence?"
GM's announcement was seen by others in the motor industry as a public relations effort to outflank rivals, many of which have already launched aggressive electric-vehicle programs.
Volkswagen, for example, is planning to launch almost 70 new electric models in the next 10 years, increase its electric-vehicle production over the next decade to 22 million and pour about $33 billion into electrifying its other vehicles. Ford, which has been building vehicles with internal-combustion engines for more than a century, is spending $11.5 billion through 2022 on new EVs. Tesla plans to increase sales of its all-electric fleet.
Heavy trucks excluded
The move toward ending tailpipe emissions will affect GM's passenger cars and light-duty trucks - SUVs such as the Yukon, as well as vans and minivans and some pickup trucks, such as the Silverado, a company spokeswoman said.
But its heavy-duty vehicles - box trucks, tractor trailers, utility trucks and some heavy pickup trucks - will continue to run on petrol and diesel, the company said.
GM's statement also left some wiggle room in continuing internal-combustion engines, critics noted. The company did not rule out using carbon offsets or credits "if absolutely necessary" to reach its goal of eliminating tailpipe emissions. That means GM could invest in programs that remove carbon dioxide from the air, such as tree planting, and still sell some gasoline-powered vehicles.
And GM said that its plans for "decarbonising and transitioning to 100 percent EVs" would take place "as supported by our commitment to setting science-based targets."
Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Centre for Biological Diversity, said that "given GM's polluting track record, their promise to arrange some offsets for pollution" suggested that the company's plan was "just blue smoke and mirrors."
Lawmakers, however, applauded GM's move.
"General Motors committing to exclusively sell zero-emissions vehicles by 2035 and to be carbon neutral by 2040 is a big deal," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, said in a statement. "This is good news for our climate and a smart financial move for the company - a win-win."
The Washington Post