General Motors (GM) may be looking to its past to find a solution for the future. Ironically, its brand most maligned for being eco-unfriendly may become its new electric-only brand.
These new EVs would be built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, a factory previously marked for shut-down. Production is slated to begin in late 2021 and the factory is expected to manufacture 80,000 EVs per year.
GM hasn’t announced publicly it’ll revive the Hummer brand, though Reuters cites several anonymous sources familiar with the plan. The United Auto Workers union has announced GM’s plans to manufacture what the company is calling its BT1 electric pickup truck and SUV program as part of a US$3 billion (A$4.38 billion) investment in the plant.
GM has also previously announced it’ll invest US$8 billion (A$11.68 billion) in developing a range of EVs and autonomous vehicles. The company wants to have 20 new EV models by 2023 and is building a new battery plant in Ohio.
Whether it wears Hummer badges or not, the first BT1 EV will be a pickup truck that’ll begin low-volume production in late 2021. A higher-performance version will follow in 2022 and an SUV in 2023.
Above & Below: 2006 Hummer H3
The BT1 program will also include a Cadillac-branded crossover, previewed earlier this year and slated for a 2023 launch. Also arriving at that time will be an electric pickup truck for the GMC brand. GM president Mark Reuss has said the BT1 architecture will be highly flexible and can be used to produce front-, rear- and all-wheel-drive vehicles in a range of different sizes and body styles.
Though it might seem strange to build something so “green” with a Hummer badge, the Hummer name is widely known and could allow GM to charge higher prices than an equivalent vehicle with a Chevrolet badge. Hummer has also built both SUVs and pickups in the past and has been popular with celebrities – Arnold Schwarzenegger even famously had his Hummer H1 converted to electric propulsion.
Detroit-Hamtramck will also reportedly produce electric vans. GM currently manufactures the full-size Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana cargo vans. In recent years, Ford and FCA have switched to more efficient, European-derived vans, leaving GM to persist with these antediluvian vans that date back to 1995. Introducing an electric van would allow GM to leapfrog its domestic rivals in this segment.
GM is no stranger to battery-electric vehicles. It pioneered the modern electric vehicle with the GM EV-1 in the mid-1990s and currently sells the relatively successful Chevrolet Bolt. However, it’s been watching as Tesla has dominated the upscale EV market, while another American start-up, Rivian, has spurned its advances and found another suitor in Ford. The upstart brand has two upscale products planned, the R1T pickup and R1S SUV. They’ll begin production next year.
This part of the market is heating up. Besides Rivian, Ford also has an electric pickup planned, based on the top-selling F-150 truck. It’s slated for a 2022 launch according to Reuters. Tesla is also developing an electric pickup that may launch around the same time.
Pickup trucks and full-size SUVs are hugely profitable for the American Big 3 but electric versions are an unfamiliar concept. Chevrolet offered a mild-hybrid version of its Silverado pickup back in 2004 but it was a low-volume model sold only in a handful of states. The company then introduced the two-mode hybrid system – co-developed with Daimler-Chrysler and BMW – in the Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, as well as the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade full-size SUVs. These were more widely available but lasted only a generation.
The plans to produce the EVs at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly is good news for workers. The plant, which currently produces the Cadillac CT6 and Chevrolet Impala sedans, was marked for closure next year. Negotiations with the striking United Auto Workers union yielded a win for workers, securing Hamtramck for the new EVs.
Locals were furious about GM’s original plan to close the plant. The initial construction of the plant was hugely controversial as the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck declared eminent domain over 362 acres of a neighbourhood called Poletown, leading to the demolition of 1,500 homes and the displacement of thousands of residents. Because of its history, locals and workers refer to the plant as “GM Poletown”.
Detroit-Hamtramck has a history of being a high-tech factory assembling high-tech cars. Opened in 1985, It was built to show GM could build a factory as efficient as the Japanese. At the time, it used the most robots of any GM plant ever, though its early years in particular were marked with production inefficiencies including, infamously, robots that spray-painted each other instead of the Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles that went down the assembly line.
Later, it was the home of the Chevrolet Volt and its Cadillac ELR cousin. It currently builds Cadillac’s flagship sedan, the CT6, which has an uncertain future in its home market. Though its factory is no longer being shuttered, news of EV production moving there leaves the CT6 in limbo pending an announcement it’ll shift to another factory. The CT6 is also manufactured in China but a switch to importing from there might be unpalatable for American buyers, especially considering it’s a full-size luxury sedan, and also given the ever-intensifying trade war between China and the Trump government.