This year’s Geneva motor show was shaping up to host a blizzard of electric vehicle launch announcements. BMW was going to show its i4 Concept, an important competitor for the Tesla Model 3. Renault’s budget brand Dacia had an electric baby SUV, the Spring, ready to roll, and Fiat was poised to pull the sheets off its new electric 500, which looks just like the old model, but is based on a new platform. Volkswagen had the ID.4, a crossover sister to the Golf-sized ID.3, while the Chinese electric car-maker Aiways was hoping to make a big splash too.
But suddenly, with just a few days to go, the difficult decision was made to pull the plug on the show in the face of the coronavirus scare, forcing manufacturers to find other methods of getting the message across, including online press conferences. Then, during US business hours on 4th March, late on what would have been Geneva’s second press day, came a stunning series of announcements from a General Motors event in Detroit that eclipsed even the unveilings that would have taken place at the show.
GM painted a picture of an all-electric future based on Ultium, a new modular battery technology architecture. The first car to benefit will be an electric Hummer SUV. Nine other models were announced for introduction by 2025, including an updated Chevrolet Bolt, a variety of SUVs spread across GM’s stable of brands, and the Cadillac Celestiq, a new flagship model for the company’s luxury badge.
Electrification has produced endless headaches for the established car makers. They know they have to do it, but they also know that expensive battery packs mean profits will be hard to come by during the first phase of the process, because it will be difficult to pass the higher costs on to customers. Battery prices are in decline, so the problem eventually goes away, but GM thinks that with Ultium, it can bring battery costs down towards the $100 per kWh milestone fairly quickly, greatly reducing the hit.
GM hadn’t even planned to be at Geneva, not least because it had already withdrawn from Europe with the sale of Vauxhall and Opel in 2017. Only a fortnight before, the company had announced a further contraction in its global footprint with the decision to close down its Australian Holden brand and withdraw from right-hand drive markets altogether. The Ultium announcements show that the company is probably more than compensating for that geographical retrenchment with its aggressive expansion into new technologies for the territories it continues to serve.
For British electric car fans, there’s a depressing familiarity to GM’s exciting, but unobtainable new unveilings – the American giant has a history of announcing attractive EVs that don’t reach the UK. Regular readers of Bright Spark may recall how often I used to refer to the Chevrolet Bolt, which a couple of years ago was the first affordable car with a long-range 60kWh-plus battery. That made it to continental Europe as the Opel Ampera-e but was never sold as a right-hand-drive Vauxhall version.
Geneva was probably set to be the first major mainstream motor show that would have been dominated by electric product launches. But traditional motor shows seem to be on their last legs. Even the richest manufacturers are increasingly selective about which shows they attend, and several had already pulled out of Geneva well before the coronavirus scare.
The danger, from the show organisers’ point of view, is that the manufacturers may find that their online virtual motor show presentations, or separate manufacturer events like GM’s that aren’t part of the show calendar at all, prove to be just as effective at getting their messages out as a physical show, without all of its associated expense.